Among the foremost painters of early Republican America, Ralph Earl (1751-1801) was one of several American artists whose native talent inspired the means to study abroad, and whose foreign training provided the expertise to portray his countrymen in the most internationally fashionable manner of the time. As much as his artistic abilities enabled Earl to support himself abroad, it was also his political sympathies that required his departure for England in 1778. The son of a Massachusetts Militia captain, Ralph Earl refused to serve the American rebel cause. While it has been speculated that Earl did not join his father's regiment as a means of advancing his artistic career, Earl's name was nonetheless included on the Loyalist Claim of 1778 and he was shortly after charged with spying for the British army (1). This inquiry into his activities directly resulted in his expulsion from the colonies for England with Captain John Money, the quartermaster general of General Burgoyne's army. A 1779 petition in which Earl requested assistance from the British government due to hardship suffered for his loyalty during the American War of Independence implied Earl continued to consider himself an Englishman (2). In England, Earl in fact enjoyed a successful career painting in Norfolk and outside London, studying with Benjamin West and exhibiting briefly at the Royal Academy. With his return to the United States in 1785, Earl became the prodigal Loyalist who gave a face to America's Revolutionary elite.
Ralph Earl's manner and style of depicting his sitters changed with his evolution as an artist and adaptation to his patrons' wishes over twenty-seven years of portrait painting in New England. Earl's early portraits, painted soon after he established himself as an artist in New Haven, Connecticut, included sitters such as Eliphalet Dyer (c. 1774-1775, private collection) and Roger Sherman (c. 1775-1776, collection of Yale University Art Gallery). These images share a stark simplicity, boldness of elemental color and tonal contrast and directness that is at once reflective of John Singleton Copley's early work and of the tastes of his patrons (3). Those portraits completed by Earl during his years in England and immediately following his return are defined by a simultaneous informality and loose fluidity, particularly in the depiction of background scenery, that suggests the influence of such English artists as Arthur Devis and Thomas Gainsborough. Earl's portraits appear to have become tighter and more literal as the artist grew away from his London training and eschewed the aesthetic manner of America's former aristocratic influence in favor of the conservative simplicity of his republican clientele.
Stylistically, the sitters illustrated here relate to several portraits completed by Earl in the 1780s. Captain Joseph Tilden shares the same close perspective and naturalistic background employed by Earl in his portrait of his friend Dr. Joseph Trumbull (circa 1784, collection of Historic Deerfield, see Kornhauser, et al, pp. 131-132, fig. 18). Likewise, the muted, impressionistic and iconographic background of Earl's earlier 1783 portrait of Admiral Richard Kempenfelt (collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London; see Kornhauser, et al, pp. 118-120, fig. 12) is reproduced reduced in scale using the same device of the seaman's telescope bisecting the canvas. A comparison of Earl's portraits of Mariann Wolcott (signed and dated 1789, collection of The Litchfield Historical Society, see Kornhauser, et al, pp. 150-151, fig. 27) and Sarah Parker Tilden shows Earl again altering scales but maintaining painterly fluidity and the romantic essence of each sitter. The portraits of Martha Tennant Rogers and Daughter (signed and dated 1788, collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., see Kornhauser, et al, pp. 142-144, fig. 24) and Sarah Parker Tilden relate in the same manner as Captain Joseph Tilden and Dr. Joseph Trumbull. The portraits use the same close perspective, scale and naturalistic background to produce a likeness of the sitter that is at once immediate and direct. Taken together, both Captain Joseph Tilden and Sarah Parker Tilden share the loose background quality of Earl's signed and dated 1784 portrait of Sophia Drake (collection of Count Charles de Salis, Switzerland, see Kornahuser, et al., pp. 129-130, fig. 17). In addition, specific elements of Earl's style are also consistent within his work, such as the distinctive fig-shaped leaves with pale green interior and dark outline. Visible in the likenesses of the Tildens, they are also in Earl's portraits of Daniel Boardman (collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; see Kornhauser, et al., p. 152-154, fig. 28) and Baron von Steuben, (signed and dated 1786, collection of New York State Historical Association; see Kornhauser, et al., pp. 137-139, fig. 21) among others.
While Earl's Tory sympathies were as well documented in his lifetime as in present assessments of his work, his importance and reputation as one of the foremost portrait artists of early Republican America lies in the images he created of his largely Rebel patrons. Along with such sitters as Roger Sherman, Baron von Steuben, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Wolcott, Chief Justice and Mrs. Oliver Ellsworth, to name a fraction of Earl's American clientele, Captain Joseph Tilden and his wife, Sarah Parker Tilden also risked life and livelihood for the colonies' bid for independence.
A descendant of Mayflower settlers, Joseph Tilden (1753-1800) married Sarah Parker of Brookline (1761-1827) in 1777 at the crucial beginning of America's battle for independence. Tilden committed himself to the rebel cause soon after his marriage and applied for commission in February 1777. His first ship during the Revolution was the schooner Charming Sally, which sailed for St. Peters laden with a cargo of lumber in June 1777 and returned to Boston with salt. Tilden's commitment to the rebel cause appears to have been in conjunction with his family, as the both the Charming Sally and General Gates, the second brigantine commanded by Tilden commissioned in February 1778, were co-owned by Sarah Parker Tilden's brother-in-law, William Shattuck. Shattuck owned almost two dozen ships, and many were used to aid the American colonies during the years of the Revolutionary War. During the final months of the war, Joseph Tilden commanded the brigantine Lark, his third ship in the service of American independence, which was bound for Virginia (4). Estate records following Joseph Tilden's untimely death at sea en route to Charleston in 1800 suggest that the years following the American Revolution were profitable for Tilden and his family. While Tilden died intestate, probate records nonetheless show his assets were valued at $49,604.73 after all debts to the estate were paid. At his death, Joseph Tilden owned his house and land on Milk Street in Boston as well as property (including wharf) in Battery March Street. Further estate records show Tilden had interests in several ships and their cargo, along with some property co-owned with David Tilden, a relative (possibly one of his sons). According to Massachusetts probate law at the time, Sarah Tilden received 1/3 her husband's estate and a life interest in their Boston home and property; she died in 1827. During their twenty-three years of marriage, Joseph and Sarah Parker Tilden had nine children. Elizabeth Tilden (b. 1789), through whose descendants these portraits passed, married Captain John Linzee of the Royal Navy. In addition to the portraits illustrated here, Ralph Earl also painted Philo Ruggles in 1796, a cousin of Sarah Parker Tilden.
1 Laurence B. Goodrich, Ralph Earl, Recorder for an Era (Oneonta, 1967), p. 6.
2 John Marshall Phillips, "Ralph Earl, Loyalist" Art in America (October 1939), p. 187-189.
3 Kornhauser, et al., Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic (New Haven, 1991), p. 10.
4 Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the War of the Revolution, vol. 15, p. 745.