Massachusetts-born Ralph Earl began his artistic career in New Haven, Connecticut, as a history painter and portraitist. The Revolution impelled this ardent Loyalist to flee to London in 1778, leaving his wife and family behind. Like other American artists visiting London, he studied in the studio of Benjamin West (see B.67.25, and B.67.26) and began exhibiting his graceful and fashionable portraits at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts. He returned to the United States in 1785 and set up a portrait studio in New York, which proved successful until hard drinking and mounting debts led to his imprisonment in 1786. After his release in 1788, he became an itinerant painter in the Connecticut River valley and Long Island, dying of alcoholism in 1801. A bigamist, debtor, and alcoholic, Earl was among the most ambitious painters working in the United States after the departure of John Singleton Copley (see B.54.31, B.54.21, B.54.25, B.54.18, B.54.26, B.54.27, B.54.29, B.54.28, and B.54.30) for London. Earl tailored his style to his local market; his New York portraits, for example, have a fashionable English panache, while his Connecticut River valley portraits, of which the Bayou Bend painting is one, suggest a modified style that accommodated his pious and republican patrons.

Mason Fitch Cogswell (1761-1830), a Yale graduate and doctor, was practicing in New York when Earl was in debtor's prison. The doctor arranged for the artist's release in 1788 and, through his family connections in Connecticut, provided the artist with numerous new patrons. Earl painted Cogswell in Hartford in 1791 in exchange for medical attention. Among the artist's most endearing and animated paintings, this portrait shows the fashionably dressed doctor seated in a Windsor chair with a green fabric-covered writing arm, gazing at the viewer with an engaging smile, his hand turning the page of his book, as if temporarily interrupted in his study. His attentive spaniel, looking for affection, lifts his head at the doctor's side. He is posed before a crimson drapery with tassel and fringe and, as an indication of his profession, an array of shelved medical books.

RELATED EXAMPLES: Ralph Earl, Portrait of an Unidentified Doctor of Divinity, 1784, location unknown, in which the sitter is posed before a library a device that Earl used in the Bayou Bend painting and repeated again in portraits of Connecticut’s learned men, for example: Reverend Judah Champion, 1789, the Litchfield Historical Society, Litchfield, Connecticut: and Reverend Nehemiah Strong, 1790, Yale University Art Gallery. New Haven.

Book excerpt: Warren, David B., Michael K. Brown, Elizabeth Ann Coleman, and Emily Ballew Neff. American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection. Houston: Princeton Univ. Press, 1998.


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Artist
Ralph Earl, American, 1751–1801
Title
Portrait of Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell (1761–1830)
Date
1791
Medium
Oil on canvas
Dimensions
Canvas: 37 1/4 × 32 in. (94.6 × 81.3 cm)
Credit Line

The Bayou Bend Collection, museum purchase funded by friends of Miss Ima Hogg, in her memory

Current Location
Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens
MAPLE BEDROOM
Accession Number
B.76.184
Classification
Painting
Provenance

The sitter; to his son, Mason Fitch Cogswell (1807-1865); to his son, Ledyard Cogswell (b.1852); to his son Ledyard Cogswell, Jr . (1878-1954); to his wife, Mrs. Ledyard Cogswell (Dorothy Treat Arnold), Loudonville, New York; to Arnold Cogswell; to Vose Galleries; to the Bayou Bend Collection, in 1976. Miss Hogg was considering the purchase of this painting when she died in 1975; the painting was bought in her memory by her friends.