Ralph Earl was the eldest son of a large landholder in Paxton, Massachusetts. Earl left home in 1774 under circumstances suggesting a point of departure from his family’s values. His father, Ralph Earl, Sr., was a prominent member, later a Captain, in the local militia, and Paxton representative to the Committee of Correspondence. In 1774, in response to pressure to enlist in his father’s regiment, the eldest son chose, instead, to move to New Haven, where he set up as a painter. Earl returned home briefly, a few months later, to marry his second cousin, Sarah Gates, who was five months pregnant at the time. Leaving his new wife to live with her parents and give birth to their daughter, he returned to New Haven. The couple did establish a household together, two years later, for a six-month period, long enough for Earl to father a second child, a son. But the artist was in England by the time John Earl was born. The couple may have divorced at some later time, although no records of that event have been found.
Earl fled to England in 1777, in trouble for his loyalist sympathies and possibly activities. He went disguised as a servant to Captain John Money, an English officer returning home in a prisoner of war exchange. In England, Earl initially enjoyed Money’s protection and largesse, living with him at his country residence in Norwich, East Anglia, a provincial area not unlike Earl’s Connecticut and Massachusetts homes. He established himself as a painter in Norwich, remaining there until 1782. By 1783 Earl was in London, where he studied with Benjamin West and achieved significant success, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and gaining commissions for major portraits of prominent Englishmen.
Earl’s early artistic accomplishments are astounding, considering his lack of both formal education and professional training. In New Haven, he had begun his career by carefully observing and emulating the work of John Singleton Copley, the pre-eminent Colonial portraitist who left Boston for England at almost exactly the same time that Ralph Earl left Paxton, Massachusetts, for New Haven. Earl cultivated the acquaintance of Copley’s half-brother, miniature painter and engraver Henry Pelham, and visited Pelham in his Boston studio in 1775, taking at the same time the opportunity to familiarize himself with all the art available to see in that metropolis. Throughout his career, Earl appears to have been a fantastically successful auto-didact, combining his substantial natural talent with a keen eye to attain a level of skill that allowed him to exhibit and practice in London. He taught himself to paint on the basis of close study of the works of chosen “masters,” of whom Copley was certainly among the very first and the most enduringly influential. Little record survives of Earl’s presence in Benjamin West’s studio, suggesting that he was a peripheral figure among the older artist’s students. It was in England that Earl first began to punctuate his backgrounds with elaborate landscape compositions, a practice he continued when he returned to America, and which distinguished his portraits from the work of his less skillful competitors and established a new American taste in the process.
Earl returned to America in 1785, at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. He returned with a new wife, Ann Whiteside Earl, the daughter of a Norwich neighbor of Captain Money. Disembarking in Boston, he painted there for a few months before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, and then settling in New York City. He invoked the names of Copley, West, and Reynolds in newspaper advertisements announcing his arrival, obviously hoping that his English training would give him an advantage in producing portraits for a burgeoning class of newly confident Americans. Indeed, in the course of his American career, Earl made a specialty of adapting his English style to the celebration of the military distinction of his American patrons.