"in this age of refinement the well-born and well-bred of his countrymen will patronize him in the road to fame" read a notice regarding the portrait paintings of Ralph Earl symbolizes a landed and accomplished gentleman in a new republic, printed in Weekly Monitor, June 21, 1790. Litchfield, Connecticut.
Dated 1796, this portrait of a gentleman was painted in the third and most accomplished period of Ralph Earl's career. Born in Worcester County, Massachusetts in 1751, Ralph Earl married in 1774 and began to establish himself as an artist. The second phase of his career began when Earl fled to England during the Revolutionary war. Arriving in England in April, 1778 Earl applied for financial relief claiming he provided information to the British Army which prevented it from being attacked in Long Island in 1777. His request for financial aid was denied, and he turned to painting to gain an income. In 1783 he had a London address and participated in an exhibition at the Royal Academy. During this time he became acquainted with Benjamin West and his artistic style became more fully developed. His technique greatly improved, his portraits became more complex, integrating detailed landscapes and sophisticated use of color. Earl is best recognized for portraits like the one pictured here, in which the landscape settings and other attributes relate to the lives of the sitter.
Marking the third phase of his career, Earl returned to America in 1785. After a failed attempt to establish himself as a studio artist Earl was forced to pursue an itinerant career. Once again the artist found himself in financial trouble and landed in debtor's prison in New York from September 1986 to January 1788. While incarcerated several New York officials, many of whom had also been Loyalists during the War, commissioned portraits, enabling Earl to earn money and this gained him his release from prison. After his release, the artist established a prolific itinerant business concentrating in Northwest Connecticut. Earl died in Bolton, Connecticut in 1801, the cause listed as intemperance.
Dated 1796, this portrait possibly depicts Gabriel Verplank Ludlow, a descendant of the current owner. The Banyer-Ludlow family in which this portrait descended has a long association with Westchester county. The family is associated with Cornell's Neck, a tract of land near the mouth of the Bronx, which may be the subject's landholding pictured in the background of this portrait. For further information see Kornhauser, Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic (New Haven, 1991).