Ralph Earl, Early American Portrait Painter

(Published in the Bolton Community News, April 1992)

In an unmarked grave, presumably in Bolton Center Cemetery on Hebron Road, lies one of early America's foremost portrait painters.

Ralph Earl was born in Massachusetts in 1751, but moved to New Haven, Conn., as a young man to establish himself as a painter. Due to his Loyalist sympathies, Earl was forced to leave the country at the start of the American Revolution. Deserting his wife and two children, he traveled to England where he continued his career for seven years, studying portraiture in Benjamin West's London studio and, incidentally, marrying again without having been divorced.

Shortly after his return to the U.S., Earl was sent to a debtor's prison for failure to repay loans. He remained there for over a year, earning his freedom by painting protraits of prominent New York members of the Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors. Upon his release, Earl began a successful career as an itinerant portrait painter.

Traveling around new England, he painted notable citizens of the new republic, Revolutionary War heroes, and everyday people in their natural surroundings. Many of these portraits depict regional landscapes, including the sitters' newly built houses and furnishings.

Ralph Earl spent the last two years of his life in Bolton in the home of Dr. Samuel Cooley on South Road. His death in 1801 was recorded by the Rev. George Colton, pastor of the church in Bolton Center. The cause of his death was listed as "intemperance." A stone was placed in the Bolton Center Cemetery in his memory by the Connecticut Antiquary in 1935 (see photo below).