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
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 (17591838), widow of the Loyalist Joseph Palmer Smyth of New Jersey. The Earls had three children: Clara (dates unknown), Phoebe (17901863), and Augustus (17931838). They also raised the Smyths daughter, Elizabeth Ann, and son, William Henry (17881865), with whom Georgiana was pregnant when Smyth died.6 Phoebe and Augustus both became accomplished artists. Phoebes first husband was a battle-scene painter, Dennis Dighton (17921827), 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 (181517), North America (181820), and South America (182024). He was appointed artist to Charles Darwins 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
In London Earl absorbed the fashionable portrait style of the day, and consequently his work has been confused with that of Sir William Beechey (17531839), John Hoppner (17581810), Sir Thomas Lawrence (17691830), George Romney (17341802), and even Sir Joshua Reynolds (17231792). Earls portraits also have been incorrectly attributed to other American artists whose careers included English training, such as his brother Ralph, Mather Brown (active 17821831), Charles Willson Peale (17461827), Gilbert Stuart (17551828), and Benjamin West (17381820).13 Those various misattributions make it difficult to assess Earls total output, although his principal biographer, Robert G. Stewart, has identified at least seventy paintings, about half of which were executed in England.
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 Earls characteristic balance of detail with swift execution and individualization with stylization. The figures are carefully linked by the mothers 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 childs 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 (17161774) and John Wollaston (active 174275; in Charleston 176567), but Theüss death and Wollastons departure left a void. The Philadelphia painter Henry Benbridge (17431812) worked there from 1772 until about 1790. Younger artists, such as Washington Allston (17791843) and Charles Fraser (17821860), 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 (17741825) and Rembrandt Peale (17781860), who arrived in Charleston late in 1795 and stayed for about a year.15 Earl brought to one of the new Republics 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.
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:
Earls 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. Philips Church, whose Episcopal minister, Robert Smith, was among his Charleston sitters (portrait in private collection).19 Although Earls 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.
2. Earle 1888, 9093.
3. Spencer 1972, 32; Stewart 1988, 35; Kornhauser 1991a, 6.
4. Graves III, 1972, 4.
5. Stewart 1988, 36.
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 Earls 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, 13132.
16. Stewart 1987, 5054.
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.