The two-faced, twice-married Ralph Earl created pro-patriot propaganda though he sympathized with King George III. He was married to two women at the same time, one American, one English. And after fleeing to England during the Revolution he returned to Connecticut to become the leading painter of American revolutionaries.
Laurence B. Goodrich, in Ralph Earl, Recorder for an Era, ranks him among the most “brilliant and historically important artists of the land” who produced a “glowing pictorial record of the era.” Wrote Goodrich:
…the works of Earl–more intimately than those of any other painter — bring us today a realistic view of post-Revolutionary America. … His pictures show people in their own houses, surrounded by their furniture, caressing their pets, pursuing their customary occupations.
Ralph Earl was born in either Shrewsbury or Leicester, Mass., on May 11, 1754. He may have taught himself to paint. He married his second cousin, Sarah Gates, in the fall of 1774, when she was already pregnant. They had two children, but the marriage was not a success. They lived apart for all of six months of their marriage.
Earl set up a studio in New Haven, Conn., and painted primitive portraits, including an awkwardly drawn but powerful Roger Sherman.
Engravings based on his historical paintings of the Battles of Lexington and Concord were published Dec. 13, 1775, the first in Connecticut.
Earl remained loyal to King George III, though his father was a captain in the Continental Army, his brother a Minuteman and several of his cousins died in the Revolutionary cause.
Ralph and Sarah Earl were accused of treason. A petition signed by 50 people demanded action against them. Gen. John Burgoyne’s quartermaster general, John Money, saved Earl. Money “had the goodness to disguise him as a Servant and bring him from Providence to Newport in a Flag of Truce and from thence to England where they arrived in April last .” Earl left Sarah behind; they had parted ways by then.
England and Back
He spent the next seven or eight years in England, where he studied with Benjamin West. His draftsmanship improved under West, and he won commissions to paint the king and the English gentry. In England, he also married Ann Whiteside, apparently not having divorced Sarah.
He returned to the United States after the war ended and tried to set up a studio in New York City. Instead, he landed in debtors’ prison for a year and a half, where he painted portraits of the people charged with enforcing the debtors’ laws.
Earl was released from prison and moved to Connecticut, where he painted well-to-do rural families and prominent citizens who had supported the Revolution. He traveled to Vermont and Massachusetts with his family as well.
Ralph Earl died in Bolton, Conn., on Aug. 16, 1801, probably of alcoholism. In 1935, a red sandstone monument was erected to his memory. The inscription reads:
In Memory of Ralph Earl
One of the foremost portrait painters in
America of his time. Born at Shrewsbury,
Massachusetts, May 11th, 1751, he studied in
London under his countryman Benjamin
West; was an exhibitor in the Royal Academy;
and, upon returning to his native country
in 1786, painted chiefly in Connecticut.
His portraits of American patriots include
three signers of the Declaration of Indepen-
dence — Roger Sherman, Governor Olivler
Wolcott, Sr., and William Floyd — and those
of Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, General
Baron von Steuben, Colonel Samuel Talcott,
Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, Major Moses
Seymour, and the Honorable George Wyllys.
His death here in Bolton, August 16th, 1801,
was recorded by the Rev. George Colton
(1736-1812). and he was presumably
buried here in an unmarked grave.
With thanks to Worcester Art.
This story was updated in 2022.