Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl, the son of Connecticut portrait painter Ralph Earl (1751-1801) and his second wife, Ann Whiteside, was probably born in New York City in 1788. He is presumed to have received his initial painting instruction from his father.
The earliest known portrait by Earl is dated 1802. In 1804 he painted the ambitious family portrait in the National Gallery and several other dated works. These early efforts reflect his study of his father's compositions, yet they are characterized by figures with artificially erect postures and greater simplification of the body, most evident in the ovoid heads and cylindrical arms.
Earl was soon to learn perspective, anatomy, and three-dimensional illusion. In 1809 he journeyed to London, where he studied with John Trumbull and was advised by Benjamin West. After a year in London, he moved to the residence of his maternal grandfather and uncle in Norwich. He remained in Norwich for four years, receiving portrait commissions, notably from General John Money, his father's patron many years before. Earl left England in 1814 and traveled to Paris. He stayed nearly a year to study paintings at the Louvre, and made the acquaintance of John Vanderlyn.
Inspired by the grand tradition of history painting he witnessed in Europe, Earl returned to the United States in December 1815 with ideas for a grand-scale historical composition. Landing in Savannah, Georgia, he traveled about the southern states making portraits for inclusion in a portrayal of the battle of New Orleans. Although he never completed this project, his experience in the South was valuable. He established a reputation as a portraitist and met General Andrew Jackson, who was to become his lifelong patron and friend.
Earl visited Jackson's home in Nashville, Tennessee, known as "The Hermitage," in January 1817, and painted portraits of the general, his family, and friends. He married Mrs. Andrew Jackson's niece, Jane Caffery, on 19 May 1819. She died in childbirth the following year.
After the death of Mrs. Jackson in 1828, Earl became the General's closest companion and lived at The Hermitage. When Jackson was elected president, the artist accompanied him to the White House, where he was known as "Court Painter" and "the King's painter." Jackson returned to The Hermitage after his second term in office, taking Earl with him. The painter died there on 16 September 1838. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Morrissey, Eleanor Fleming. Portraits in Tennessee Painted Before 1866. National Society of Colonial Dames of America in Tennessee, Nashville (?), 1964.
MacBeth, Jerome R. "Portraits by Ralph E. W. Earl." Antiques 100 (September 1971): 390-393.
The American Earls. Ralph Earl, James Earl, R. E. W. Earl. Exh. cat. William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1972.
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 103-104.