Colonial Williamsburg: Project Preview II

Andrew Jackson, Ralph E.W. Earl, c. 1836-37Another project that I’ve worked on during my time at Colonial Williamsburg was researching the life of Ralph E.W. Earl. The Foundation acquired two of his portraits last summer, which are on display now in the “Artists on the Move: Portraits for a New Nation” exhibit at the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. These portraits, depicting Thomas Claiborne Jr. and his wife Sarah Lewis King Claiborne, help Colonial Williamsburg tell the story of how America came into being by introducing sitters from Tennessee, some of the first from this region to be acquired by the Foundation.

My research did not focus on the Claibornes, though. Rather, I was tasked with researching the life of Ralph E.W. Earl, a prolific painter nicknamed the “king’s painter” or “court painter” or Andrew Jackson. Earl was the son of Ralph Earl, famous¬†itinerant painter of the Revolutionary War era. He received his early training from his father before leaving New England to study with Benjamin West and John Trumbull in England. Upon his return, he was determined to create dramatic history paintings like West, particularly interested in depicting the heroes of the Battle of New Orleans. This interest would impact the rest of his life. Ralph E.W. Earl met Andrew Jackson in 1817, and he was immediately taken with his talent and character, inviting him to paint portrait of his family. From there, the two were virtually family. Earl married Jackson’s niece Jane Caffery, and, although she died but a year later, Earl never left the Jackson family. Throughout his career, Earl traveled alongside Jackson, painting portraits of Jackson, his family, his friends, and political allies or those he wished to win over. Ralph E.W. Earl was single handedly responsible for the depiction and image of Jackson, which would later aid in his presidential campaigns. Earl lived with Jackson at The Hermitage, joined him at the White House (where he got his own studio), and returned to the Hermitage where he lived until his death, with Jackson by his side. The two became especially close after the death of Jackson’s wife Rachel. Earl created dozens of portraits of Jackson, many of which you would recognize (such as the portrait above). However, despite this number of paintings and such a famous sitter, there has been little academic discussion on Ralph E.W. Earl, with the first significant-length book published only just this year.

Essentially, I created a timeline of Earl’s life and compiled a massive artist folder with important information on Earl so that future curators and researchers may also be able to learn about Earl’s works. I also created a document with all of the known paintings by Earl, which was over one hundred (and that was excluding those that were just attributed to him). This research I’ve done will be helpful for the future of Colonial Williamsburg as they expand their story of early America and include sitters and artists from all regions.