Ralph Earl
Looking East from Denny Hill, 1800

Looking East from Denny Hill is a wide prospect view with a sky colored in bands of soft blue and rose that lend a halcyon quality to the entire scene. A large tree frames each side of the composition, and the near distance is further divided by small groves of trees at left and just right of center. In the foreground at left, three men dressed in white shirts and pants and black hats cut rows of hay with scythes. The tool is visible only in the hands of the figure nearest the viewer. But all three men extend their arms in the same manner, and each one leans into his work. Behind this trio and to the left, two cows butt heads, and four others graze in a fenced area. Two women in white dresses and hats decorated with coral-colored ribbons stroll across the open field. The woman nearest the viewer also wears a blue sash at her waist. To the right, another group of six farmers rake hay and load it onto a cart that is drawn by two oxen. These men wear similarly cut clothes, although one man has on a blue vest, another, a red vest. A third wears a red tie or scarf. The latter figure is clad in dark blue pants, and the man with the red vest wears brown pants. Behind these farmers is a field of uncut hay and a darker patch that appears to be planted in neat rows. The men are variously engaged. The three figures on the left side of the group rake; the next one lifts hay onto the nearly full cart; the fifth man stands atop the cart and receives the pitched load; and the last man walks toward the cart with his tool on his shoulder. Stone walls that are interrupted at the right by a white gate enclose this field. The hay in the field on the other side of this wall has already been cut and piled into regular haycocks that are surrounded by shrubs or small trees.

The middle distance at left includes a group of four houses and two steeples in a line that is continued by a road that emerges from the tree line and winds toward another public building of some sort and at least seven more houses. The densely wooded area between the two steeples is beginning to show autumn foliage. The middle distance in the center of the painting is further divided by stone walls and woods and contains grazing sheep and cows. Farmhouses, fenced fields in varying shades of green, and alternately open and wooded land continue on the right side of the painting.

The horizon is similarly divided into farms and woods. A second road forms a short diagonal at about one-third the width of the painting from the left edge, along which are several houses and a large, probably public, building. This image of rural and village life continues across the horizon and is punctuated by a white building that appears to be a church, just inside the large, framing tree on the right side. In all, the painting includes at least sixty-five structures, including meetinghouses, dwellings, and outbuildings.

Thomas Denny, Jr. (1757–1814), who commissioned Looking East from Denny Hill, was the wealthiest man in Leicester, Massachusetts. His grandfather Daniel Denny arrived in Leicester in 1717, four years after the town was established by an act of the colony’s General Court. The elder Denny established the family atop what is still known as Denny Hill.1 Over the next two generations, the farmstead grew from seventy to more than four hundred acres, an area that stretched about two-thirds of a mile in each direction and encompassed four acres of unimprovable land, five acres of tillage, eight acres of fresh meadow, forty unimproved acres, fifty acres of upland mowing, 118 acres of pasturage, and 206 acres of woodland. That land is featured in the foreground of Earl’s painting.2

Thomas Denny’s prominence in Leicester may be measured not only by his landholdings but also by the many public offices to which he was elected. He served as town clerk, selectman, moderator of the selectmen, town representative in the General Court of Massachusetts, justice of the peace, and tax assessor. Denny also served Leicester as Fence Viewer, Hogg Constable, and Surveyor of the Highways, and he represented it in a communal ritual called "perambulations," in which selectmen from two adjoining towns met to affirm the boundaries.3

In the fall of 1786 and spring of 1787, Denny commanded a cavalry unit that helped to suppress Shays’ Rebellion in Worcester. Although many were sympathetic to charges that the commonwealth lacked sufficient circulating currency, that heavy taxation imposed an undue burden, and that government officials in Boston were extravagant and removed from the lives of their constituents, Denny and leaders in other central Massachusetts towns acted together to prevent protestors from closing the courts. He was rewarded for his role in helping put down the rebellion with the rank of captain in the militia and was later made a colonel.4

Denny commissioned this painting shortly after moving from the family farm into Leicester proper and establishing himself there as a retailer of textiles, books, and household goods and as a card-clothing manufacturer. (Card clothing consists of a strip of perforated leather through which thin pieces of wire are drawn; this tool was then used to card wool and cotton fibers.) Card-clothing manufacture was among the first major steps taken toward development of Massachusetts’s textile industry. By the time he died, in 1814, Thomas Denny had considerable commercial and industrial holdings both in Leicester and in Ware, in neighboring Hampshire County.5

Looking East from Denny Hill is one of only five landscapes that Earl is known to have created for private patrons. Those others are: Landscape of the Ruggles Homestead (1796, Corporate Art Collection, Reader’s Digest Association), Landscape View of the Canfield House (about 1796, Litchfield Historical Society, Litchfield, Connecticut), Houses Fronting New Milford Green (about 1796, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut), and LandscapeView of Old Bennington (1798, Bennington Museum, Bennington, Vermont).6 The first three of these landscapes portray individual properties, while the last two—the Bennington and Denny Hill paintings—depict entire communities. Looking East from Denny Hill is among Ralph Earl’s last works; no painting bears the date 1801, the year he died. Although several scholars have questioned whether the date was painted in the artist’s hand or added later, microscopic examination shows that the fi

Figure 1. Ralph Earl, Thomas Earle, 1800, oil on canvas, 37 5/8 x 33 7/8 in. (95.5 x 86.1 cm), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1947.17.42.

nal brushstrokes in the background overlap the signature. This suggests that both the signature and date were part of the original surface.

Although Earl did not paint pure landscapes until the last five years of his life, landscape was one of his main means of establishing the identities of his sitters in portraits he produced from 1783 on. He painted several images of gentleman hunters out-of-doors, including Portrait of a Man with a Gun. Also, like many other painters of that time, Earl often placed a sitter indoors near an open window, through which is visible some representative portion of the sitter’s estate. For instance, in Thomas Earle (fig. 1), a likeness of the painter’s cousin, the window opens onto a view of the subject’s house and gunsmith shop.7 This work was painted during the same visit to Earl’s native Leicester during which he created Looking East from Denny Hill.

Earl depicted the landscape from the vantage point of the farmhouse—sited at 950 feet above sea level—where Daniel Denny had established the family in 1717 and where his grandson Thomas Denny lived until about 1795. Anna Henshaw (1778–1854), a Denny cousin, wrote a description of the vista at about the time Earl painted it:

There is a most splendid panorama view from Denny Hill, which embraces the surrounding country, dotted with the white houses of the inhabitants and a dozen or more churches. At the north west is seen Leicester village situate on a hill, equal, if not superior in height, about two miles travelling distance, but not more than a mile, air, or "bee line." On the north east in a valley are Worcester and New Worcester villages. All around below are hills and dales, woodlands, plots of grass, and arable fields, delightfully diversified.8

Henshaw’s description encompasses views to the northwest and northeast; Earl’s painting takes in the Denny farm and the scenery east of it. It is readily apparent that the Dennys and their neighbors have improved the land, partitioned it with trees, fences, and walls, and cultivated productive fields. In these features, the painting embodies the agrarian ideal described by such prominent early Americans as Yale president Timothy Dwight, who visited Worcester in the 1790s and observed: "A farm well surrounded and divided by good stone walls presents to my mind, irresistably [sic], the image of tidy, skillful, profitable agriculture, and promises me within doors the still more agreeable prospect of plenty and prosperity."9

Figure 2. Samuel Hill, View of the Seat of the Hon. Moses Gill Esq. at Princeton, in the County of Worcester, MASSATS, reproduced in Massachusetts Magazine, November 1792, Courtesy American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Although agriculture predominates in the landscape, Looking East from Denny Hill also bears signs of the commercial and manufacturing operations that were then emerging in central Massachusetts, as exemplified by Thomas Denny’s own enterprises. The winding road near the center of the composition leads the eye to Worcester, which, though still a small country town, was the place where area residents would go to buy imported goods otherwise found in Boston shops.10 The building to the right of the bend in the road is a mill of some kind.11 The two most prominent structures rising above the tree line are the steeples of the Old South Church (on the right) and the Second Parish Church (on the left).12 In the distance, in line with Worcester, is the village of Shrewsbury, where the artist’s grandparents lived and where Thomas Denny’s cousin Elizabeth Denny Ward and her husband owned the largest farm.13

The composition may be understood best in relation to two types of landscapes commonly engraved for popular American magazines in the 1780s and 1790s: estate views and prospect views. The former is exemplified by Samuel Hill’s View of the Seat of the Hon. Moses Gill . . . , (fig. 2). Estate views derive from the tradition of English prints of country houses. In such prints, the vantage point is typically low and takes in a stately house and the land immediately in front of it. Gardens, outbuildings, ornamental fences, and other improvements were signs of the individual’s worthiness to possess the land and of his contribution to the general good, as the text accompanying the Hill print in Massachusetts Magazine indicates:

Foreigners must have an high idea of the rapid progress of improvement in America, when they are told that the ground which these buildings now cover, and a farm of many hundred acres around it, now under high and profitable cultivation were, in the year 1766, as perfectly wild as the deepest forest of our country. The honourable proprietor must have great satisfaction in seeing Improvements so extensive, made under his own eye, under his own direction, and by his own active industry.14

Earl’s understanding of this landscape model is seen in paintings such as Houses Fronting New Milford Green.

Figure 3. Samuel Hill, S.E. Prospect from an Eminence near the Common, Boston, reproduced in Massachusetts Magazine, November 1792, Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Prospect views, by contrast, feature panoramic landscapes seen from a high elevation. Samuel Hill’s S.E. Prospect from an Eminence near the Common, Boston (fig. 3) is a good example of this format, which was usually employed to depict places of great natural beauty as well as common topography. The Hill engraving was accompanied in Massachusetts Magazine by a poem that characterized the image as embodying the interdependence of commerce and agriculture:

HERE, Commerce waves her pictur’d flag,/ and rides
     On the smooth bosom of the sea green tides; . . .
THERE, Agriculture, driving deep the/ plough,
     Turns up the level plain: or down the brow . . .15

This pictorial and poetic definition of balanced land use—often defined in that period with manufacturing as an essential third component—was considered requisite to economic harmony and a self-sustaining republic. The juxtaposition of agricultural Leicester and commercial Worcester in Earl’s painting echoes the theme of economic balance articulated in Samuel Hill’s prospect view of Boston. The choice of this compositional model for Earl’s Looking East from Denny Hill is therefore especially interesting. The painting shares with estate views a visual inventory of Thomas Denny’s landholdings, but it moves out toward the community rather than inward to the patron’s house. This emphasis suggests that Earl—probably with Denny’s approval and perhaps at his request—sought to link his patron to prevailing attitudes about what constituted enlightened citizenship during the early years of the American republic. The effect was to present Denny as a civic-minded landowner, not one working solely for personal aggrandizement.

1. For Daniel Denny, see Washburn 1860, 54, 421.

2. "A List of the Polls and of the Estates, Real and Personal, of the Several Proprietors and Inhabitants of the Town of Leicester . . ." Massachusetts General Court, Valuation Lists, Leicester, 1784, box 380, Massachusetts State Library, Boston.

3. For the public offices Denny held, see Washburn, 1860, 34, 63, 195, 459–60; and General Records, 1745–1787: Town of Leicester and General Records, 1787–1829: Town of Leicester, Leicester Town Hall.

4. General Records, 1745–1787: Town of Leicester, September 25, 1786, 442–43, and May 25, 1787, 8. Until Shays’ Rebellion, Thomas Denny is listed as "Mr." in the town records. But in 1788, the year following the rebellion, he appears as "Capt." and in 1791 as "Colonel." General Records, 1745–1787: Town of Leicester, September 25, 1786, 442, and General Records, 1787–1829: Town of Leicester, March 3, 1788, 14, and May 9, 1791, 55.

5. Thomas Denny, probate inventory, Registry of Probate, Worcester County Court House, Worcester, Mass., record 16654.

6. These landscapes are published in Kornhauser 1991a, 206–7 (Ruggles Homestead), 208 and 210–11 (Canfield House), 217–18 (New Milford Green), 226–28 (Old Bennington).

7. Cynthia J. Mills, in Miles 1995. The Worcester Art Museum purchased the Thomas Earle portrait in 1916 but deaccessioned it in 1921.

8. Anna Henshaw, handwritten copy of a manuscript, about 1800, object file, Worcester Art Museum.

9. Dwight, as quoted in Brooke 1989, 2.

10. Ruth Henshaw Bascom, a Leicester woman, recorded buying trips that members of her family made to Leicester, Worcester, and Boston. See, for example, diary entries: May 22, 1799, to Boston; November 6, 1799, to Worcester; and November 11, 1799, to Thomas Denny’s store in Leicester. Manuscript, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.

11. St. George 1998, 342.

12. Dresser 1945, 205, 207.

13. Izard 1993, 65.

14. "Description of the Plate," Massachusetts Magazine 4: 11 (November 1792): [651].

15. "Description of the Plate," Massachusetts Magazine 2: 11 (November 1790): [643].