Ralph Earl was one of the few American artists to achieve success in both England and America in the last quarter of the eighteenth century; "A very capital Portrait Painter" was how the Connecticut Courant would describe him. Originally born in Worcester County, Massachusetts, the self taught artist began his career as a portrait painter out of New Haven in 1744. In 1778, he traveled to England to study in the studio of Benjamin West, while there he was commissioned to paint many noble portraits including that of King George III. By 1791, Earl had returned to America and reached the height of his career in northwest Connecticut. With the intention of establishing himself in New York, he came to settle in the city in 1786. After the Revolution, New York had become the central political meeting place in America, giving Earl an opportunity time to present himself as a portrait painter. Due to the Revolution's drastic effect on artistic activity in America, Earl found himself receiving a number of commissions to paint military portraits for the recent heroes of the American Revolution. Earl drew from both his New England roots, and his English experience, to achieve what would be his greatest works, capturing the faces of people who helped forge a new nation. The twenty known portraits from this period indicate that Earl's New York patrons were associated in their political, religious, and professional lives.
One of his subjects was Fairfield, Connecticut native, Gershom Burr (1768-1828), nephew of Thaddeus Burr of the Revolution and cousin to Aaron Burr, the third Vice President of the United States. Though Gershom Burr was a Whig, and his relatives Thaddeus and Aaron were highly active in politics, Gershom never wished or sought office for himself. He was an original trustee of the Old Williamsburg Savings Bank in and was living in Bushwick at the point when Williamsburg was consolidated with the town of Bushwick (now Brooklyn, New York). An early view of the Williamsburg and Bushwick shoreline appears in the background of the portrait. He was also deeply interested in the districts' schools and their administration, and was a member of the board of education.
IN 1789, Gershom married Susanna Young of Stratfield (Bridgeport), Connecticut.
Related works include:
Portrait of Thomas Shaw, 1793, oil on canvas, 59 by 48 in. New London County Historical Society, New London, Connecticut
Portrait of David Baldwin, 1790, oil on canvas, 57 by 62 ½ .Collection High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia
Portrait of Mrs. John Watson, 1791, oil on canvas, 68 ¼ by 54 3/8. Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art, Proctor Collection, Utica, New York
The Reverend Judah Champion, 1789, oil on canvas. 73 by 52 ½. The Litchfield Historical Society, Litchfield, Connecticut
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