Ralph Earl (1751-1801) was an American painter whose work recalls the archaisms of 17th-century colonial limners. He was one of America's earliest landscape artists.
Ralph Earl was born in rural Connecticut. Nothing is known of his early training. In 1775, working in New Haven, he and the engraver Amos Doolittle visited the recent battle scenes of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord. Earl's four painted battle pictures, engraved by Doolittle, were among the earliest such scenes done in America. The forms are sharply drawn with little modeling and take on the look of flat paper cutouts.
Earl's father was a colonel in the Revolutionary Army, but Earl's own sentiments lay with the loyalists. Refusing to fight the King's troops and fearing for his safety, he fled to England in 1778, where he remained for 7 years. He left behind him Sarah Gates Earl, his wife and cousin. Later Earl married again (never having divorced his first wife) and also later left his second wife. He seems to have been a man of unstable temperament. William Dunlap's history of American art published in 1834 observed that Earl "prevented improvement and destroyed himself by habitual intemperance."
Only a handful of Earl's paintings from the period prior to his English trip still exist. The best is the portrait Roger Sherman (ca. 1777), in which Earl's roughhewn, laborious, but direct approach brings inner qualities of the sitter into full relief. Sherman was a slow, tenacious type who rose from humble origins through his own efforts to become lawyer, judge, and prominent civic leader. Earl painted him in browns and blacks, against a bare backdrop, seated in a plain Windsor chair, looking doggedly ahead.
When Earl returned to America, he tried to settle in New York but could not make a go of it and became an itinerant painter in Connecticut. His colors grew brighter and his figures more supple, but his paintings still had the primitive, 17th-century limner look, which was not uncommon for itinerant painters of the time. His paintings were uneven in quality. Among the best are the portrait Daniel Boardman (1789), in which a lovely, grassy landscape with soft mists falling over the hills stretches behind the figure; and the portrait Mrs. William Mosley and Son Charles (1791). His Connecticut hillscapes of the 1790s are precise and factual, yet manage to catch the personality of the place.
Earl's clumsy power was representative of the work of itinerant Connecticut painters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Laurence B. Goodrich, Ralph Earl: Recorder for an Era (1967), offers a lively account of his career. William Sawitzky, Ralph Earl, 1751-1801(1945), is a catalog of an exhibition of Earl's works at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Worcester Art Museum, Mass.
Goodrich, Laurence B., Ralph Earl, recorder for an era, Albany State University of New York 1967. □