Finding Earl: A Reflection on Thesis Research


Portrait of Rebecca Pritchard Mills (Mrs. William Mills) and her Daughter, Eliza Shrewsbury, James Earl, ca. 1795, Oil on Canvas, Courtesy of the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, 1960.554, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont.


I hit the final “upload” button on my thesis this April, just as the first-year fellows turned in their thesis proposals and began to plan summer research. The overlap of these two events is the cause of much discussion in the Winterthur student lounge, prompting me to reflect on my own research experience. Though it’s easy (and, indeed, useful) to begin a project with decision, rigorous organization and sharply-defined intent, the reality of research does not always comply with a plan. I certainly encountered this challenge in studying the life and work of the late eighteenth-century American portraitist James Earl for my thesis.

What follows is an abbreviated recap of my research last summer, which was generously funded by the WPAMC Gift Funds and a Coco Kim Scholarship. For my thesis topic, my original aim was to analyze the visual and technical conventions James Earl employed in his artistic practice, while clarifying the details of his biography. Because so little information about the artist exists, my approach was to access his trajectory by studying the subjects of his approximately 70 known portraits.

My first task was to compile a list of portraits Earl completed in his lifetime. I soon found that the majority hold tenuous attributions, remain in private (and often unknown) hands, or have been lost. While a handful of Earl’s known paintings grace the walls of major American institutions (including the luminous portrait of Rebecca Pritchard Mills [Mrs. William Mills] and Her Daughter, Eliza Shrewsbury, above, at Winterthur), I was surprised to learn how difficult locating the rest would be. The Frick Art Reference Library’s online photo archive proved to be one of my most invaluable sources. Here, I could sort through the results of the Historical American Records Survey, a 1935-1942 WPA initiative to catalogue and photograph all American portraits (including those in private collections) completed before 1860.

Portrait of Charlotte and Moses Rhodes Ives, James Earl, ca. 1794, Courtesy of the Frick Art Reference Library.

I also turned to several different types of written and archival sources to identify the remaining works. A handful of Earl’s paintings we know through copies, which have been reproduced in paint or print mediums. For his English portraits, the Royal Academy records document the paintings Earl submitted for exhibition. Some of these works, however, have generalized titles, such as “A Small Head”, making them difficult to trace. The below print of the 1787 exhibition after Johann Heinrich Ramberg luckily documents one such painting entitled “Two Boys”.

The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1787. Print by Pierre Antoine Martini after Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1787, hand-coloured etching. Courtesy, The British Museum, 1871,1209.591.

Detail of Two Boys by James Earl, from Ramburg’s Exhibition at the Royal Academy

Lastly, Earl’s post-mortem inventory records several patrons who owed the estate at the time of Earl’s death. This document is invaluable, as it gave me an idea of which of his portraits best-represented his technical aptitude at the end of his short career (Earl perished in Charleston of yellow fever at the age of 35).

A screenshot of a spreadsheet I used to compile information about James Earl’s paintings.

Now that I had a grasp on Earl’s body of work, I could plan my research around investigating each individual sitter. I spent over a month split between Charleston and Providence, systematically scouring museum, archive, and municipal records for any trace of Earl appearing during the period of 1794-1796 (the years he returned to America). I poured over countless personal papers, letters and diaries from his sitters, but I found not one mention of Earl, and barely a period reference to any of his portraits. Furthermore, I quickly learned that even though a body of archival materials may exist, the information I sought was often not directly addressed, forcing me to read between the lines to gain a fuller picture. By August, I was beginning to lose my vigor.

While I had been doggedly searching for clues about Earl, at the end of the summer, what I had was an enormous amount of biographical information about Earl’s sitters. Taking a step back, I began to see patterns of professional, familial and social networks emerge between his patrons. Though my original intent to uncover the details of Earl’s biography, I saw a new possibility in trying to understand who his sitters were, the circles in which Earl moved, and his strategy for his business of portraiture.

Solomon Drowne, Charles Cromwell Ingham (1796-1863) after James Earl, 1863 (original 1785), Oil on canvas. Courtesy: Brown University Portrait Collection, Providence, Rhode Island. Portrait no. 21, Historic Property no. 1955.

I continued my research into his sitters, tracking what connections and patterns I could find between them, and most importantly, expanding my research to his lesser-known works. In doing so, I visited the Brown University Special Collections at the John Hay Library to review the personal papers of Dr. Solomon Drowne. Earl’s portrait of Drowne has been only loosely recognized as a part of his oeuvre, because it is known only through a later copy made for the Rhode Island Medical Society. Reading through these papers, I finally found my first mention of Earl.

Drowne’s papers recorded him sitting for multiple portrait sessions in London, while making clear that the two were, in fact, close friends. Drowne wrote about Earl’s pursuit of a portrait career in the extremely competitive London art scene, as well as clues about his trajectory in the United States. I found confirming evidence that Earl visited Providence (a fact that had previously been up for debate), leading me to new avenues of research in Rhode Island. These essential links helped to bring together the larger story I had been building through Earl’s sitters, giving me a broader sense of Earl’s artistic ideals, his circles of patronage, and his businesslike strategy.

The lessons of my research have been said before, but are worth reiterating: remain flexible and let the evidence guide you. My research plan was necessary to ensuring that I stayed within the scope of my project, but by eventually expanding my purview, I discovered a richer story which revealed the economic and social circumstances motivating Earl’s movement across the Atlantic World. While there are, of course, many aspects of Earl’s story left to be uncovered, I learned the importance of leaving no stone uncovered, no matter how peripherally related it may seem.


By Lan Morgan, WPAMC Class of 2017

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