James Earl
Born Leicester, Mass., May 1, 1761. Died Charleston, S.C., August 18, 1796.

A native of Massachusetts, James Earl painted in London between 1787 and 1794 and in Charleston, South Carolina, from that year until his death. He adopted contemporary modes in English painting, including the informal conversation group. Earl became successful at depicting several figures in a single composition, a challenge had confounded many American painters, including his better-known older brother, Ralph Earl. Although all his portraits capture a sense of life and character through facial expression, those he painted of women are slightly idealized. His patrons admired him for "giving life to the eye, and expression of every feature" and for his facility at painting drapery.1

Figure 1. This is the house in Paxton, Massachusetts, in which James Earl was raised.

James Earl was the son of Ralph and Phebe Whittemore Earl (also spelled Earll, and Earle).2 The family had been residents of central Massachusetts for several generations. His parents lived on a farm in a section of Leicester that is now part of Paxton, an adjoining town that was settled in 1765; their two-story house still stands (fig. 1). Nothing is known of James Earl’s early training. He followed his older brother’s example by pursuing his career in England and eventually returning to America. James enjoyed greater success than his brother did when he exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. He also differed from Ralph in terms of his Loyalist patron base, his relatively stationary rather than itinerant career, and his eventual residence in the South rather than in New England. In addition, he was not as interested as his brother was in employing attributes, specific interiors, and other devices to particularize his sitter.

Earl had moved to England at least by 1787 and perhaps as early as 1784. An obituary published at his death in 1796 noted he had been in Charleston for about two years and that he had lived in London for ten years before that, placing his arrival in England about 1784. Scholars disagree about whether James Earl met his brother in London or went there on the encouragement of the elder Earl, who returned to Massachusetts in 1785 after honing his talents in England for seven years.3 James Earl was exhibiting at the Royal Academy in London by 1787, the first firm evidence of his residence in the English capital.4 He continued to exhibit there every year until he died, including the years he was in Charleston. Whether he left paintings behind in London for submission to the Royal Academy or shipped them from Charleston is not known. Besides exhibiting at the academy, James Earl enrolled as a student there in 1789; how long he studied is unknown.5

Also in 1789 Earl married Georgiana Caroline Pilkington Smyth (1759–1838), widow of the Loyalist Joseph Palmer Smyth of New Jersey. The Earls had three children: Clara (dates unknown), Phoebe (1790–1863), and Augustus (1793–1838). They also raised the Smyths’ daughter, Elizabeth Ann, and son, William Henry (1788–1865), with whom Georgiana was pregnant when Smyth died.6 Phoebe and Augustus both became accomplished artists. Phoebe’s first husband was a battle-scene painter, Dennis Dighton (1792–1827), and her second, a man named Peter McIntyre. She earned a reputation as a still-life artist and served as fruit and flower painter to Queen Adelaide of England, the wife of William IV.7 From 1825 to 1828, the adventurous Augustus, who spelled his surname Earle, traveled in Australia, making portraits of colonial officials and recording the landscape and aboriginal life. Previously, his journeys had taken him to the Mediterranean (1815–17), North America (1818–20), and South America (1820–24). He was appointed artist to Charles Darwin’s expedition in 1832 but was unable to complete the voyage because his health failed.8 Like his father and sister, Augustus exhibited at the Royal Academy, from 1806 to 1838; he also displayed works at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1818.9

Figure 2. John Robinson after James Earl, Dr. Samuel Stearns: An American Philosopher, 1790, line engraving, 7 5/8 x 5 in. (19.4 x 12.7 cm), private collection.

James Earl established a niche in London by painting Americans who had expatriated because of their Loyalist politics.10 Given that his patron base was Loyalist and that his brother Ralph had left the American colonies under threat of prosecution for his political sympathies, it has sometimes been inferred that James himself was a Loyalist. Their father, however, was a patriot who served as a captain in the Massachusetts militia during the Revolution. One commission from a Loyalist surely stemmed from James Earl’s family ties. Dr. Samuel Stearns (1741–1809) was living in London after leaving his medical practice in Earl’s native Paxton. Earl painted Stearns’s portrait as a miniature, and it was engraved as the frontispiece of the doctor’s autobiographical Tour from London to Paris (1790, fig. 2). The engraving typifies Earl’s ability to convey character through pose and gaze. The turn of Stearns’s head and his sideways glance convey the sitter’s intelligence and hauteur. Although the present location of Earl’s miniature is unknown, it was probably the image recorded in the doctor’s probate inventory as "a miniature likeness of the deceased."11 In addition to capturing Stearns’s likeness, Earl supported the doctor’s petition to the British government for financial relief as an American Loyalist, describing him as a "master and Publisher of astronomical Calculations, and a Practitioner in Physic and Surgery there, and had a plenty of Business, and lived in affluent Circumstances before the unhappy Dissentions took place in America."12 Among Earl’s other Loyalist patrons in London were Samuel Goldsbury (1743–1815) (portrait in private collection), William Jarvis (1756–1817) and his family (portraits in Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto), Robert Carey Michell (1764–1855) (portrait location unknown), and Francis Welch (1744–1790) (portrait in private collection).

In London Earl absorbed the fashionable portrait style of the day, and consequently his work has been confused with that of Sir William Beechey (1753–1839), John Hoppner (1758–1810), Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), George Romney (1734–1802), and even Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792). Earl’s portraits also have been incorrectly attributed to other American artists whose careers included English training, such as his brother Ralph, Mather Brown (active 1782–1831), Charles Willson Peale (1746–1827), Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), and Benjamin West (1738–1820).13 Those various misattributions make it difficult to assess Earl’s total output, although his principal biographer, Robert G. Stewart, has identified at least seventy paintings, about half of which were executed in England.

Figure 3. James Earl, Sophia Bignon de Bonneville, about 1794-1796, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm), Used by permission of Louisiana Arts and Science Museum, Baton Rouge.

Earl’s Sophia Bignon de Bonneville (fig. 3) typifies his elegant portrayals of women. Although his contemporaries credited him with capturing accurate likenesses, the sitter’s oval eyes and the simple geometry of her face reveal his tendency to idealize his female subjects. Earl also was admired for his ability to paint costume, a skill that is evident in the way he caught the textures, patterns, and lines of this sitter’s clothing without reducing them to a stiff, linear, purely decorative surfaces. In the hair and flowers, he employed an especially soft, painterly touch.

Earl also mastered the conversation group, an English multifigural portrait convention that is less formal than traditional portraits. In his portrait of Hannah Peters Jarvis and her daughters, the woman and older child look at the viewer, while the younger girl directs her eyes toward her older sister, to whom she hands a piece of fruit. Each figure demonstrates Earl’s characteristic balance of detail with swift execution and individualization with stylization. The figures are carefully linked by the mother’s embrace and a pyramidal structure based on her anchoring form. Earl placed the group slightly off center to add interest and to reveal the landscape setting in which they are placed. The portrait of Colonel William Jarvis and his son similarly unites several pleasing contrasts: a seated man and a standing child, one figure looking out and the other within the portrait, and an officer in uniform and a boy playing soldier. The child’s emulation and admiration of his father impart a sweet, lighthearted quality to the painting. In each work, the artist included attributes that suggest the intended future paths of the children: domesticity and fruitfulness for the girls and public service for the boy. The basket that appears in the portrait of Mrs. Jarvis and her daughters was a studio prop that Earl also included in his Lady Mary Beauclerk (about 1790, private collection).14

In 1794, James Earl ventured to Charleston, South Carolina, attracted by the lure of a promising art market there. The port city had previously been served by Jeremiah Theüs (1716–1774) and John Wollaston (active 1742–75; in Charleston 1765–67), but Theüs’s death and Wollaston’s departure left a void. The Philadelphia painter Henry Benbridge (1743–1812) worked there from 1772 until about 1790. Younger artists, such as Washington Allston (1779–1843) and Charles Fraser (1782–1860), had not yet matured to satisfy the refined tastes of the planter and merchant elite. The only significant competition Earl faced was from the Philadelphia artist brothers Raphaelle (1774–1825) and Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), who arrived in Charleston late in 1795 and stayed for about a year.15 Earl brought to one of the new Republic’s largest and wealthiest cities a novel approach to portraiture that was more natural than the rococo style of Wollaston, for example, yet elegant enough to appeal to the fashion-conscious elite.

Figure 4. James Earl, Major General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, about 1795–96, oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 29 13/16 in. (90.2 x 75.7 cm), Worcester Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1921.86.

He eventually earned commissions from prominent Charlestonians, including the Pinckneys and Rutledges, who were among South Carolina’s greatest landowners and political powers. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) was a lawyer, planter, officer in the American Revolution, diplomat, and unsuccessful Federalist candidate for vice-president and president of the United States. Earl painted him twice in military uniform as a major general—a seated half-length portrait (fig. 4) and a standing three-quarter-length pose (1795–96, Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston), probably both from the same sittings. Despite his officer’s uniform and weapon, Pinckney is presented as a gentle affable man. Among Earl’s patrons in Charleston were several transplanted New Englanders, including the Bostonians Mr. and Mrs. James Courtney (1794–96, portraits in Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, Washington, D.C.) and Rhode Islanders Mr. and Mrs. Ebenezer Burrill and Elizabeth Paine, who posed for a double portrait (1794–96, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence) with her aunt during a visit to Charleston.16

Earl successfully obtained commissions in Charleston, but he died of yellow fever before he could return home to his family in England with his earnings. A newspaper obituary noted that during the "nearly two years" Earl had lived in the city, he had:

exhibited so many happy specimens of his art as to enable us to speak with decision of his talents. To an uncommon facility in hitting of the likeness, may be added a peculiarity in his execution of drapery, and which ever has been esteemed in his art the NE PLUS ULTRA, of giving life to the eye, and expression of every feature. . . . As a man, he must be regretted as possessing a suavity of disposition, and good humor. As a husband, a father, we attempt not to reach his merits!17

Earl’s will named his wife as sole beneficiary of his modest? estate. His probate inventory demonstrates that he lived humbly in Charleston; his personal effects were valued at just over twenty-three pounds. They included "a lot prints," "a Box with Brushes, pencils &c." (25 shillings), and "a Trunk & Lot Books."18 Also among his artistic materials was a camera obscura, an optical instrument artists have used since the Renaissance to translate a figure, landscape, or objects from three-dimensions to two with precision. The artist was buried at St. Philip’s Church, whose Episcopal minister, Robert Smith, was among his Charleston sitters (portrait in private collection).19 Although Earl’s possessions were few, his assets included numerous debts owed to him by patrons that totaled more than 250 pounds, affirming that his brief career in Charleston had been a promising one.

1. I am grateful to Robert G. Stewart for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this biography. South Carolina State Gazette, August 20, 1796. The main discussions of James Earl are Sherman 1935b; Coen 1963; Spencer 1972, 32–47; Stewart 1987, 43–56; and Stewart 1988.

2. Earle 1888, 90–93.

3. Spencer 1972, 32; Stewart 1988, 35; Kornhauser 1991a, 6.

4. Graves III, 1972, 4.

5. Stewart 1988, 36.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., 57 n. 57.

8. Andrew Sayers, "Augustus Earle," in DA IX, 1996, 505; Earle 1838; Earle 1966; Hackforth-Jones 1980; Johns 1998, 97, 99.

9. Stewart 1988, 57.

10. Robert G. Stewart was the first scholar to note the importance of Loyalists to Earl’s patron base (1988).

11. Samuel Stearns probate inventory, as quoted in Stewart 1988, 40.

12. James Earl, February 17, 1789, letter supporting the loyalist petition of Dr. William Stearns, as quoted in Stewart 1988, 40.

13. Stewart 1988, 40, 45, 48, 49, 54.

14. Stewart 1987, 48.

15. Miller II, pt. 1, 1988, 131–32.

16. Stewart 1987, 50–54.

17. South Carolina State Gazette, August 20, 1796.

18. "Inventory of Effects and Debts belonging to the Estate of James Earl, Limner deceased," October 29, 1796, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, S.C., Charleston County Wills, v. 26, p. 488.

19. Smith and Salley 1971, 356.