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Ralph Earl, Connecticut's First Great Painter

From about 1790 to 1801 Ralph Earl was the favored portrait painter of Connecticut. Many of his paintings hang in our leading museums. Occasionally one unknown to art experts comes to light. Usually its owner knows little. more about it than the name of his forebear who sat for the likeness. He has paid no attention to the artist's signature and date, which is usually on the back of the canvas, covered by the dust of years.

Such discoveries of works by Earl are possible because during this period the artist tramped from town to town doing portraits whenever he could find people willing to pay for them. He kept no list of his work, so left few clues for locating his pictures. Since art critics recognized him about 1920 as the first realist among our native American painters, his work is considered highly desirable.

Ralph Earl was born in 1751 at Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, fifth generation of a typical New England Puritan family. His first art teacher was Samuel King of Newport, Rhode Island. By 1774 Earl was earning his living in New Haven as a portrait painter. The next year, going with the Connecticut troops, he saw the fighting at Lexington and Concord. There he made eye-witness sketches of these clashes from which his companion, Amos Doolittle, also of New Haven, engraved his first American battle-scene prints. About 1779, Earl sailed to England, became a pupil of Benjamin West and, in 1784, was elected to the Royal Academy. Two years later he was back in America where he painted portraits in New York City, sometimes with his subjects coming to pose in the debtor's prison. In 1790, he moved to Connecticut where he worked as an itinerant painter until his death in 1801 at Bolton.

During those years, he did many portraits of fathers and young sons, mothers with babes in arms, so typical of his work, and of husbands and wives like that of Chief Justice and Mrs. Oliver Ellsworth ). Painted in 1792, it shows them sitting in the library of their home at Windsor, Connecticut. In the background is a window through which is seen the Ellsworth house and lands. This was a frequent Earl touch. Details of dress and room are also typical.

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