An artist’s ambition

Major General the Baron von Steuben, by Ralph Earl. Courtesy of Wikipedia

I am continually struck by the effects of happenstance in genealogy. Because I was putting together notes on my grandmother’s family, I went looking for a source on the Gates family of Worcester, Massachusetts; because my eye was caught by the next entry to one for my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother;[1] because I remembered enough of my eighteenth-century art history to recognize the artist Ralph Earl (or Earle) as both an ancestral uncle (by unhappy marriage) and a cousin, I have found a family painter who might almost stand in for the even more famous François Boucher, a forebear my grandmother’s family has had to give up.

Worcester County is not where I would first look for a kinsman or a portrait painter — the latter point might account for Earl’s peripatetic career. So might the times: he was growing up in the years around the Revolutionary War, and inclination as well as artist’s ambition must account for the fact that he “skedaddled” for England, leaving his wife and children behind. After studying with Benjamin West, he returned to America with a new wife and family; somewhere along the line, Sarah (Gates) Earl divorced him and also remarried — it all sounds more civilized than it likely was![2]

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, by Ralph Earl. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Talent took him far — his portraits of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and Baron von Steuben are accomplished in the accepted style of the period — but drink as well as the stresses of eking out a living far from the urban centers that would have better supported him make his story a sad one. Aunt Sarah long outlived him; my ancestor, her sister Mary (Gates) Howe, lived in Damariscotta, Maine, remote indeed from Sarah (Gates) (Earl) Pierce, who died in West Boylston, Massachusetts, 29 years after her first husband died in Bolton, Connecticut, in 1801.[3]

Ralph Earl and Sarah Gates were second cousins, both descended from Ralph Earle and Mary Carr of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and Leicester, Massachusetts.


[1] Gary Boyd Roberts and Judith McGhan, Genealogies of Connecticut Families from the New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983), 1: 714.

[2] Lawrence B. Goodrich, Ralph Earl: Recorder for an Era (Albany: The State University of New York, 1967), 1, 5.

[3] Roberts and McGhan, Genealogies of Connecticut Families, 1: 714.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

8 thoughts on “An artist’s ambition

  1. Happy to see this post on Ralph Earl[e]. In my years of teaching American Studies, we always studied Earl along with contemporaries like Trumbull and Peale. At his best, he could achieve wonderful full-length portraits like Elijah Boardman, his wife, and brother. But, when it came to children, look at Mrs. Noah Smith and Children. Also love Justice Oliver Ellsworth, and there’s Roger Sherman too. There was a wonderful exhibition of his work, about 30 years ago, at the Wadsworth Athenaeum. I believe the title was “Face of the Young Republic,” and there was a corresponding wonderfully illustrated article in Antiques magazine [saved in one of my unpacked school boxes in the basement.] In a video on the American Wing of the Met, Vincent Scully did an incisive look at Earl, wishing he had painted Washington. Earl’s entry in the Dictionary of American Biography, originally published in 1931, states [paraphrase here] ” a victim of his own excess.”

      1. My great-grandmother was a Boucher, and she was committed — against significant evidence — to the tale that she was a French Boucher. Never mind her father was born in Hannover, or her grandparents in Hamburg and Mannheim, or that her marriage to Edward Hughes Glidden (the architect whose talent was passed on to all three of his children) appeared in a German language newspaper in Baltimore.

        Nope, following the First World War she was French, and she sent my grandmother and great-aunt to Brussels to be “finished” — Aunt Miriam later studied in Paris, too. That awkward German phase (1795-1845) was best ignored…

    1. I’ve written a couple of posts on the Boucher family, who suddenly appear in Hamburg in 1795 or so. Family lore has always linked Gabriel Boucher (my great-great-grandfather’s grandfather) to Francois Boucher — in support of this, my grandmother and her siblings were all expert draftsmen/women, so it must have been so! (That the Boucher family was rather more distinguished for music than art, earlier in the nineteenth century, gets overlooked.)

      But, 1795 — conveniently located in the vicinity of the French Revolution, which drove the aristos out of the country.

      On the other hand, Francois Boucher had no grandsons named Boucher, and while the name Emile appears tantalizingly in both Francois’ and Gabriel’s families, short of a son-in-law adopting his wife’s name it doesn’t work. In any case, I can’t connect Gabriel to any French Boucher family — and Boucher in France is about as common as Smith!

  2. HI Scott
    I am also a direct lineal descendant of Ralph Earle and Mary Carr via daughter Mercy.
    Can you provided the exact birth and death dates please for Ralph and Mary.

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