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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755
603.646.2808
hood.museum@dartmouth.edu

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Ralph Earl, American, 1751-1801

Portrait of a Lady
1784
Oil on canvas
Purchased through the Katharine T. and Merrill G. Beede 1929 Fund, the Phyllis and Bertram Geller 1937 Memorial Fund, the Mrs. Harvey P. Hood W'18 Fund, the Guernsey Center Moore 1904 Memorial Fund, the Robert J. Strasenburgh II 1942 Fund, the Julia L. Whittier Fund, the Hood Museum of Art Acquisitions Fund, and through gifts by Exchange; P.990.43

 

During the eighteenth century American portraitists looked primarily to British painting for inspiration, as evidenced by this fashionable likeness by New England painter Ralph Earl. Originally from western Massachusetts, Earl began his career in the mid-1770s with limited artistic training, then was forced to leave America during the Revolution owing to his Loyalist sympathies. After arriving in London in 1778, he received instruction from the American expatriate Benjamin West and saw firsthand the work of George Romney, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and John Singleton Copley. In 1784, the year in which he painted this portrait, Ralph Earl was working in the company of West in Windsor, England. This work’s somewhat generalized landscape, the sitter’s gracefully tilted head, and the costume’s fluid, painterly treatment all reflect the height of British taste in portraiture. Curiously, once Earl returned to America he appears to have deliberately simplified his manner and adopted the more linear and seemingly untutored “plain style” popular among his provincial clients. Although the sitter for this portrait is unidentified, she is probably one of the many visitors to Windsor, a fashionable country retreat known for its beautiful scenery and fine game hunting. The landscape in the background is identical to that featured in several portraits Earl painted of female students enrolled in a nearby school. Her confident gaze and stylish attire indicate a prominent social background, and the letter she holds, which is only partially legible, may suggest the romantic attentions of a male admirer. Purchased by the Hood in 1990, this painting is the museum’s first portrait by Earl and one of very few eighteenth-century portraits depicting a woman.

Last Updated: 4/17/09