Ralph Earl was born in 1751 in Worcester County, Massachusetts, the son of a farmer. He learned the trade of painting portraits by observing the work of others. Both he and his younger brother James (1761-1796) became painters. In 1774 he settled in New Haven, where he painted portraits for three years and married his cousin, Sarah Gates. During these years John Singleton Copley, especially through his portraits of Adam Babcock (NGA 1978.79.1) and Mrs. Adam Babcock (NGA 1985.20.1), was an important influence.
Earl was a Loyalist and fled Connecticut during the American Revolution to escape certain imprisonment as a spy. Abandoning his family, he disguised himself as the servant of British Army captain John Money and accompanied Money to England in the spring of 1778. He settled in Money's home town of Norwich, where he painted his first English portraits. By 1783 he was in London, a student of Benjamin West. Four of his portraits were exhibited at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy in 1783-1785, and his approximately two dozen English portraits indicate that he successfully adopted the cosmopolitan London manner.
Earl returned to the United States in 1785 with an English bride, Ann Whiteside, and sent an announcement of his return to newspapers in Hartford, Connecticut and Worcester, Massachusetts. In New York City in September 1786 he was sentenced to prison because of nonpayment of personal debts, and was supported by the Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors while in jail. The Society's members sent their families and friends to the artist to have their portraits painted. Other sitters were members of the recently formed Society of the Cincinnati.
Released from prison in January 1788, Earl returned to Connecticut. His patron was Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, a founding member of the Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors, who gave the artist introductions to his many friends, acquaintances and even his patients. Earl found enthusiastic patronage for his portraits among the social leaders of western and central Connecticut. His sitters during the next decade included the Boardmans and Taylors of New Milford, the Wolcotts of Litchfield, and the Ellsworths of Hartford. They are often portrayed in richly detailed domestic settings or in front of landscapes of the towns they lived in. For the next decade Earl successfully translated his English experience into a new Connecticut style, and he often painted on coarsely woven large canvases that give his work a rough finish. He also painted on Long Island, in New York City and, toward the end of his career, in western Massachusetts and southern Vermont. The scale of these portraits and their rich colors and detailing had an impact on local artists like Joseph Steward of Hartford, who imitated Earl's new Connecticut manner with great success.
Earl was also a landscape painter. He frequently included landscape backgrounds in his portraits and was commissioned to paint separate views of his patrons' houses. In the late 1790's he painted a panorama of Niagara Falls (unlocated). He died in 1801 in Bolton, Connecticut, of alcoholism, the disease that had plagued him since his confinement in the New York debtors' prison. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
The American Earls. Ralph Earl, James Earl, R. E. W. Earl. Exh. cat. William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1972.
Evans, Dorinda. Benjamin West and His American Students. Exh. cat. National Portrait Gallery, Washington; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Washington, 1980: 60-66.
Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin. Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic Exh. cat. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 1991.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 90-91.