J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ralph Earl: "intemperate" artist

I found what I want for my birthday! This delightful Ralph Earl painting from about 1783 of two brothers is being offered by the Hirschl & Adler Gallery. I'm not sure Earl set out to show the boys half-hugging, half-roughhousing, but there's a real sense of a fraternal relationship here.

Earl (1751-1801) was born in Worcester, and first tried to establish himself as an artist in New Haven. He met Henry Pelham, John Singleton Copley's younger half-brother, and went to Boston in March 1775 to see Copley's works, the best in the colonies. (Copley himself had left for Europe by that time, never to return.)

Later that spring, Earl sketched the landscape around Lexington and Concord for the famous Amos Doolittle prints of the battle there. However, Earl himself favored the Crown, perhaps because its supporters offered better business prospects for a portraitist. (He did paint Continental Congress delegate Roger Sherman, though.)

By 1777, local newspapers were denouncing Earl as a traitor, and he had to sneak into British-occupied Newport for safety. From 1778 to 1785 he worked in London, studying with Benjamin West. Then he returned to the U.S. of A., probably expecting to be the big fish in the small pond. Unfortunately, business wasn't always up to his expectations, and he did some of his best work while imprisoned in New York for debt. Earl died at age fifty of, one critic said, "intemperance." See more about him in this biography from the Worcester Art Museum.

Here's a self-portrait, also for sale. And a page of links to Earl's work in museums around the country.

(And don't worry—I promise I'll act surprised.)

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