Ralph Earl: Artist of the Young Republic

Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, Wadsworth Atheneum

Tuesday, April 13, 2010Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Elijah Boardman by Ralph Earl

Elijah Boardman, 1789, by Ralph Earl, oil on canvas, 83 by 51 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, bequest of Susan W. Tyler

Oliver Ellsworth and Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth by Ralph Earl

Oliver Ellsworth and Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth, 1792, by Ralph Earl, oil on canvas, 76 by 86 3/4 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, gift of the Ellsworth heirs

Ralph Earl (1751—1801) created an artistic legacy that embodied many of the most enduring images of American people and places painted during the last quarter of the 18th century. Dr. Kornhauser will discuss the details of the artist’s colorful career, examining his unique patterns of patronage, and exploring the changes seen in his style and technique from one region (England, New York, Connecticut) to the next.

Earl’s adventures as an artist during turbulent times will be explored in his art. During his early years, the self-taught artist painted prominent New Haven, Connecticut, patriots on the eve of the Revolution. In order to avoid militia service, he abandoned his first wife and children to escape to England during the war. There he painted in Norwich and, later, London, the center for American expatriate painters who gravitated to Benjamin West’s studio (including, over the years, Matthew Pratt, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley). In England, Ralph Earl learned to paint in a formal cosmopolitan style. He also learned to adapt his painting technique to suit the sitter’s social rank and expectations—-flexibility that he exercised later in New York and Connecticut.

A loan he obtained on his return trip to America (with his second wife) in 1785, but did not pay back, resulted in three years in New York City’s debtor’s prison. In jail, he painted portraits of prominent New Yorkers that eventually paid for his release. New York, then the seat of government and a rapidly growing mercantile center, welcomed the sophisticated style he had developed in England. Ironically, many of his patrons were members of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Ralph Earl then returned to Connecticut, where he spent a decade painting innovative portraits that featured true likenesses of his middle-class clientele — with their newly acquired land, homes and furnishings. His eager clientele included the well established descendants of Connecticut’s “river gods” (as discussed by William Hosley in August, 1986 in “Furniture and Woodwork of the Connecticut River Valley”) as well as the new, post-Revolutionary elite of well educated (most of whom were Yale graduates) professionals who also maintained agrarian connections. Ralph Earl portrayed this segment of society (effectively the yuppies of the new state) that had not previously been depicted by a trained and gifted artist.

Earl’s profoundly perceptive, large-scale images of Connecticut’s rural society included backdrops of red drapery but otherwise departed from English convention. His palette of broadly applied primary colors, emphasized verisimilitude with life-size images of startling realism and precise execution of the sitters’ domestic surroundings (including Connecticut-made Federal furniture). His depiction of the relatively modest lifestyle of his Congregationalist clientele was a departure from the sophistication of his more diverse, but largely Episcopalian, New York patronage.

The landscape scenes viewed from windows in his Connecticut portraits frequently depicted an idyllic landscape or the sitter’s home. (Such scenes depict, outside of the scene’s windows, the neoclassical house inside of which the sitters are shown.) Once Earl began to saturate the Connecticut market, he sought portrait commissions in Massachusetts and Vermont. He ended his career painting many of the earliest views of the American landscape.

Ralph Earl distinguished himself for 25 years as a portrait and landscape painter of exceptional breadth and power. This lecture will demonstrate that his own life was emblematic of the struggle all Americans faced during the formative years of the young republic. The values held by the citizens of the new republic in the post-revolutionary period influenced Earl’s art and inspired a school of followers during his lifetime.

Elizabeth Kornhauser’s master’s degree in American Folk Culture is from the State University of New York at Cooperstown and her doctorate in American Studies is from Boston University. Her curatorial career began at the Smith College Art Museum. After becoming a curator for the Long Island (now Brooklyn) Historical Society in Brooklyn, NY, she organized the exhibition and catalogue: Brooklyn Before the Bridge, for the Brooklyn Museum.

Since 1983, Dr. Kornhauser has served the Wadsworth Atheneum in a progression of increasingly responsible curatorial positions. Her special exhibitions and major catalogues for the Wadsworth Atheneum include Neue Welt: Erfindung der Amerikanischen Malerie (New World: Discovering an American Art, 2007), an international project with the Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg, Germany, which provides an international dialogue on the importance of the Hudson River School as the United States’ first national school of landscape art; Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention (2006); Marsden Hartley (2003); co-author of Hudson River School; Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (2003); Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe & American Modernism (1999); New Worlds from Old: 19th-Century Australian & American Landscapes (1998); Joseph Cornell: Box Constructions and Collages (1997); Thomas Cole: Landscape Into History (1994); and Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic (1991). She has just completed the exhibition and catalogue: American Moderns on Paper: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and is working on Andrew Wyeth: Looking Beyond.

Dr. Kornhauser was named Deputy Director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1999, and served as the museum’s Acting Director in 2000. During her tenure at the Wadsworth Atheneum, she has greatly enhanced the collections with major purchases and gifts of American art. Dr. Kornhauser has also taught courses in American art at Trinity College in Hartford.

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Ralph Earl painted the face of the new republic. Bring your “faces” to the mini-exhibit: portraits, prints, photographs, a mold-blown face (such as George Washington) on a bottle, an applied face (such as a mythological deity press molded on a stoneware jug or jasperware medallion), a Southern face jug or a Victorian bust sculpted of marble.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.