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Ralph E. W. Earl, American (b. England), 1788-1838
Medium: Oil on canvas
Painting: 36 1/8 x 29 1/8 in. (91.8 x 74 cm)
Frame: 44 x 36 5/8 in. (111.8 x 93 cm)
Credit Line: Memphis Park Commission purchase
Object Number: 46.2
The status of Andrew Jackson as a national icon is well represented in numerous portraits that Ralph E.W. Earl produced over the course of their twenty-year friendship. Earl, son of Connecticut painter Ralph Earl, first visited Jackson at the Hermitage in Nashville in 1817, two years after returning from Europe where he had received training in London under John Trumbull and Benjamin West. While Earl completed his first portrait of the renowned hero of New Orleans, the two men became close friends. The following year the artist married Jackson’s niece and settled in Nashville, becoming one of the first resident portrait painters in Tennessee.
When Jackson was elected to the presidency in 1828, Earl accompanied him to the White House. For the next eight years the artist, dubbing himself the “king’s painter,” continued to fill the insatiable demand for likenesses of the celebrated leader. The Brooks’ portrait, one of the rare canvases that Earl signed and dated, was painted in 1833 for Sir Edward Thomason, an English inventor and merchant. This image reveals Earl’s limited ability as a draftsman in regard to perspective and proportion. The modeling of the head—with its strong facial features, billowing white hair, and gallant expression—however, provides a striking impression that Earl replicated on nearly all of his presidential images. The capitol building shown in the distance to the right lends a stately air to the work, while the fading sky at dusk, which fills the background, adds a dimension of drama. The scabbard’s inscription, “Our Federal Union—it must be preserved,” is taken from a toast Jackson made at a banquet in 1830 commemorating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.
Although Jackson sat for many other prominent American artists, such as John Vanderlyn, Asher B. Durand, and Thomas Sully, none could match the output of Earl, who completed more than thirty Jackson portraits in his lifetime. Earl died in 1838, a few years after he left Washington with the former president, and was buried on the grounds of the Hermitage.