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Mrs. John Watson

Not on view

Mrs. John Watson

Artist: Ralph Earl (American, 1751 - 1801)

Date: 1791
Medium: Oil on canvas, with an original frame
Overall: 68 1/4 x 54 3/8in. (173.4 x 138.1cm)
Signed: Lower left (between table legs): 'R. Earl Pinxt 1791'
Credit Line: Proctor Collection
Object number: PC. 42
Label Text
This portrait and, presumably, its accompanying frame descended to the sitter's great-grandson, James Watson Williams. In 1850 he and his wife, Helen Elizabeth Munson, began construction of the home that in the 1870s would be called Fountain Elms. A photograph in the Museum's collection, showing the interior of Fountain Elms around 1910-20, shows this portrait in the dining room at Fountain Elms hanging in what was probably this frame.
In contrast to the kind of frame that would become fashionable in 19th-century America, the wooden vertical stiles and horizontal rails were not decorated with composition ornament but, instead, support strips of molding that were shaped with a plane. A length of wood with a raised section is called a bolection molding. This molding style was popular in European interior design and decorative arts in the late-17th and early-18th centuries. Bolection moldings were also used in America during the 18th century. Assuming this frame is the picture's original, its bolection style shape may reflect the taste of the artist, whose conservative painting style appealed to such Connecticut River Valley patrons as the venerable Mrs. Watson.
Although the three, delicately cut parallel reeds that make up its inner sight edge may originally have been gilded, the center cove and the outer edge (which is comprised of one large reed, or "astragal," on top of a slightly larger flat section, or "fillet") probably were originally ebonized, as they appear now. The black sections of the frame harmonize nicely with Mrs. Watson's dress and black-trimmed bonnet.

Paul D. Schweizer
August 2010

Text Entries

Bethia Tyler (1708-92) was born in Wallingford, Connecticut, and on April 30, 1730, she married John Watson. She was the mother of five daughters and six sons, who in time assumed prominent roles in the affairs of the colony, the state, and the nation. By the time of her death in 1792 she could have recorded the names of fifty-two grandchildren in the family Bible, possibly the one shown in her portrait. She lived much of her married life in Litchfield, and her grave is in a little retired cemetery just southwest of nearby Bantam Lake. Earl’s portrait of Bethia Tyler Watson descended through the family to her great-grandson, James Watson Williams (who married Helen Elizabeth Munson) of Utica, New York, and then to his daughters, Rachel Williams, who became the wife of Frederick T. Proctor, and Maria Watson Williams, who married Thomas R. Proctor; bequests from these families established the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute in 1919, and the Mrs. John Watson was given to the Institute through the estate of Frederick T. Proctor.

Ralph Earl was the foremost portraitist of the Connecticut Valley School when he painted the full-length image of Mrs. Watson in 1791. Earl was born in Worcester County, Massachusetts, but first appears as an artist in the New Haven, Connecticut, area around 1775.(1) Among his earliest works is the well-known portrait of Roger Sherman of c. 1775 (Yale University Art Gallery), which possesses a stark, austere quality that was well matched to his colonial American subject. Many of the stylistic features found in the Sherman were so firmly implanted in Earl’s manner and in the aesthetic taste of his Connecticut Valley patrons that they endured even his several years of training in England.

Earl’s Loyalist sympathies forced him to flee the colonies in 1778, when he went to England where he eventually entered the London studio of Benjamin West.(2)  After John S. Copley arrived in London in 1776, he had completely changed his style to the fluid, painterly, airy, pastel-hued manner of the leading portraitists of the English School—Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney. But Earl, who spent seven years in England, resisted the techniques of the London masters, although, as Wilmerding put it, “his manner of painting evolved gradually out of its early stiffness and rugged simplicity into a more colorful and decorative style."(3) 

So Earl became a better painter during his English sojourn, but his style did not change fundamentally; after he returned to his native land in 1785, his American patrons encouraged retention of What was essentially a pre-Revolutionary War colonial style. He spent a few years in New York City, but by the late 1780s he was back home taking likenesses in Connecticut where “his elegance and provincialism [created] an exact expression both of the limitations and the strength of Connecticut’s rural culture,” as Edgar P. Richardson so aptly phrased it.(4)

Earl’s Mrs. John Watson of 1791, painted in Litchfield, is bracketed by two of his best-known Works—the Elijah Boardman of I789 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Ellsworth of 1792 (Wadsworth Atheneum)—and it shares with them a linear, decorative style as well as a marvelous character study in the face. Mrs. Watson is shown sitting in a chair at a table upon which rests a Bible, open to the First Book of Kings; she holds her spectacles in her left hand while the right toys with the pages of the book. The scene suggests that we have come upon the subject during one of her usual readings, and she has paused to take note of our presence. Her dress, like the design of the table and the chair, is of a slightly old-fashioned style for 1791, but it indicates a propensity to cling to time-honored values, just as Mrs.Watson would approve of the retardataire style with which her portrait was painted. Earl’s decorative flair is seen in the richly patterned rug, and his special talent for land- scape is manifested in the lovely view out the window which shows Bantam Lake with the white-spired village of Litchfield in the distance. Two years after Earl painted the Mrs. Watson, Gilbert Stuart returned to America, bringing with him a fashionable British style, which, in most areas, at last displaced the lingering colonial style; but not so in the Connecticut Valley, where Earl and his successors long continued to find appreciative patronage for their brand of portraiture.    


1. The two main references for Earl are William Sawitzky, Ralph Earl, 1751-1801, exhibition catalog (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1945), and Laurence B. Goodrich, Ralph Earl: Recorder of an Era (Albany: State University of New York, 1967).

2. Dorinda Evans, Benjamin West and His American Students (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, for the National Portrait Gallery, 1980), pp. 60-66.

3. John Wilrnerding, American Art (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 52.

4. Edgar P. Richardson, Painting in America: The Story of 450 Years (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1956), p. 123.


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