[1799 ALS to American Historical Painter and Portraitist Ralph Earle seeking His Tuition of Young Artist, William Southgate].
1799 letter of introduction addressed to American historical painter and portraitist Ralph Earle (1751–1801) seeking his trial tuition of a young artist “…long enough to satisfy your self and him whether it is worth his while to endeavour to obtain your Art…”
Ralph Earle is famed for his four iconic paintings “Scenes of the Battle of Lexington” which were subsequently engraved on copper by Amos Doolittle (1754–1832) and published in New Haven in 1775. As the DAB notes: “[T]hey have been celebrated as among the first historical paintings to be produced in this country.”
Here, John Southgate of Leicester, Massachusetts writes to Earle on behalf of his 17-year-old son, William Southgate (1782–1811), who would later go on to become a portraitist as well: “Sir, My Son William Southgate the Bearer here is Verry Desirous to obtain an opportunity to spend some time under your Tuition in in the Art of Painting and Drawing &c.”
William Southgate, who also studied with artist Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), was remotely related to Ralph Earle.¹ John Southgate alludes to this family relationship in a not-very-subtle postscript: “P.S. Some of your Friends suppose my son has so much Earle Blood in him that he will not fail of making himself master of your Art if he applyes himself to it. — I wish to see you at my House when ever you come to Leicester or Paxton.”
During the American Revolutionary War, Earle fled to England when his Loyalist sympathies became too apparent as he would not arm against King George III. He escaped to London where he studied under American expatriate artist Benjamin West (1738–1820) and was made a member of the Royal Academy, painting the king and other nobles. Earle returned to America in 1785 and, at one point, he was imprisoned for debt in New York. While in prison, Alexander Hamilton had his own wife, along with other women, sit for Earle in his cell for their portraits to secure Earle’s release.
Earle was from a family of artists and he probably also taught his son Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (c.1785–1838) who was an intimate of General, later President, Andrew Jackson. The son married Mrs. Jackson’s niece and later lived in the White House in the manner of a “court painter.” ²
Eighteenth-century letters specific to American painters of any note are scarce to commerce. The present letter connects two American portraitists who they, themselves, are connected to the luminaries and portraitists Benjamin West and Gilbert Stuart.
Description: [1799 ALS to American Historical Painter and Portraitist Ralph Earle seeking His Tuition of Young Artist, William Southgate].
Leicester [Massachusetts], September 14, 1799. 1-page. Autograph Letter Signed. Folds; some staining at upper left; short splits and overall weakness at fold lines; good.
Refs. DAB. Fielding. Falk’s. Early American Paintings, Catalogue of an Exhibition… (Brooklyn, 1917), p24. Notes. 1. Crane, Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs of Worcester County, Massachusetts… Vol. I, Illustrated (New York, 1907), p255. 2. Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) – NCMALearn [North Carolina Museum of Art] accessed online.