Born 1751, Worcester County, Mass. Family moved to Leicester, Mass., where he grew up. Art study unknown. 1774, established studio in New Haven, Conn. Married Sarah Gates, later divorced. A loyalist, he left Connecticut 1777, arrived in London, April 1778. Studied with Benjamin West; exhibited at Royal Academy. About 1784, married Ann Whiteside; two children. Returned to Boston, May 1785; same year, moved to New York City. Drinking and extravagance led to debtor's prison. Traveled in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Reversion in style led to synthesis of competence and naiveté in last decade. Died 16 August 1801, Bolton, Mass.; cause of death listed as "intemperance."
William Kloss Treasures from the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C. and London: National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985)
Ralph Earl grew up in a family of farmers and craftsmen. He refused to fight during the Revolutionary War, and his father’s suspicion that he was a spy for the British led him to disinherit his son. Earl left his wife (who was also his cousin) and their children and fled to England, where he studied with Benjamin West. After the war, he returned to America with a British wife and established himself as a portraitist in New York. But family problems, alcoholism, and debt made for a rocky career in his native country. Earl was imprisoned from 1786 to 1788, and a group of New York patrons, who formed the Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors, helped him to regain his freedom through portrait commissions. He settled in Connecticut, where his patrons, the country gentry, appreciated his straightforward landscapes and portraits, which highlighted their achievements and aspirations. (Kornhauser, Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic, 1991) Although ambitious, Earl had a self-destructive streak, and he eventually died from drinking. (Maxwell, “‘Though Inanimate, They Speak’: A Cultural Studies Approach to Ralph Earl’s Eighteenth-century American Portraiture,” PhD diss., 1997)