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Monday, April 15, 2013

Ralph Earl

Ralph Earl Self-portrait, probably
around 1770, the pose as strange
as the man himself, not to mention
his crudely rendered anatomy.
Sometimes I run across a relatively minor art personage with such an intriguing, (sometimes outrageous) story I can't resist writing about them. That's the case with the colonial era painter Ralph Earl. The man was born in 1751 in Massachusetts (there's some question as to exactly where in Massachusetts, but that's of little consequence). By 1774 he was working the state from town to town as an untrained itinerant portrait painter (and a rather poor one at that), the type I referred to a few days ago as a "limner." He also painted farms, the occasional sign, and decorated various household items as the market would allow. That same year he married his cousin, Sarah Gates. It's likely he got her pregnant before they were married, but in any case, shortly thereafter he left her with her parents in Leicester to take up residence in New Haven, Connecticut.

The British Army in Concord, 1775, Ralph Earl. Notice the British
officers in the foreground cemetery (burying their dead?)

Portrait of Roger Sherman, 1775,
Ralph Earl, probably his most
famous portrait was done before he
went to England to learn how to paint.
Once the American Revolution began, Earl made a quick trip to Lexington and Concord where, collaborating with an engraver, he painted battle scenes such as the one above, which were turned into pro-revolutionist propaganda prints. Strangely, though his father was a Revolutionary War colonel, the son was a loyalist. As the war got hotter (especially for loyalists) Earl disguised himself as the servant of a British army captain and took the boat to London for the duration. Though leaving behind a wife and daughter, it was probably a smart move on two levels. First, it took him far away from the shooting, and second, in London, he was able to study with another American expatriate, the famous Grand Manner painter, Benjamin West. There he picked up a few painting tips, eventually rendering a portrait of the King of England and several other British notables (especially their wives). He was apparently a fast learner, his work in England bearing no resemblance whatsoever to his self-portrait (top).

Ann Whiteside, 1784, Ralph Earl,
a portrait of the second wife.
Despite having a wife and daughter patiently waiting back across the sea, Ralph Earl married an attractive British lady named Ann Whiteside (left). "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one your with," except that around 1785, once the war was over, the jackass brought his new (second) wife back to the newly independent United States. Though he managed to get portrait commissions from several notable notables at the time, within a year he was within prison walls--not for bigamy, but for non-payment of debts. Even there he painted, apparently sufficient to get himself out a year later. There's no indication his two wives ever got together but, he was moderately successful from then on as one of the better New England portrait painters of his time. He died in 1801 of alcoholism, (brought on, perhaps, by one too many wives?)

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