Ammi Phillips
  • previous image next image enlarge image back
  • Ammi Phillips (1788–1865)
  • Vicinity of Amenia, New York
  • 1830–1835
  • Oil on canvas
  • 30 x 25 in.
  • American Folk Art Museum, gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2001.37.1
  • In 1924, a summer fair in Kent, Connecticut, sparked the rediscovery of a major American artist when local residents put several nineteenth-century “ancestor portraits” on display. The strikingly similar canvases depicted graceful women with long slender necks leaning slightly forward within gleaming dark backgrounds and firm men in dark suits, often holding newspapers or books in their hands. The artist, who was then unidentified, was given the appellation “Kent Limner.” It was not until 1965 that Barbara Holdridge and Larry Holdridge, with the support of Mary C. Black, convincingly demonstrated that the Kent Limner portraits were linked to several other disparate bodies of work and that all, in fact, were painted by a single artist—Ammi Phillips—at different points in his career. For more than fifty years, Phillips—whose biblical name fittingly means “my people”—portrayed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of his friends, relatives, and neighbors in New York as far north as Ticonderoga in the Adirondacks, south to Bedford, in Westchester County, and throughout the border areas of Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, and Connecticut.

    Phillips was born in Colebrook, Connecticut, in 1788. He was already traveling as an artist by 1809, when he advertised from William Clarke’s tavern in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, that he would paint “correct likenesses.” Although no portraits are known from this earliest period, the young artist asserted in this and a subsequent ad, placed the following year, that he had extensive experience and would paint his clients with “perfect shadows and elegantly dressed in the prevailing fashions of the day.” This promise became a leitmotif of Phillips’s work over more than fifty years, from the early romantic portraits of Harriet Leavens and Harriet Campbell—who appear in the guise of fashion plates replete with Chinese silk parasols and reticules—to his last portraits of the 1860s.

    When Phillips initially traveled from Connecticut to the Berkshires, he may have been attracted by the presence of a family member, John Ayer, who had purchased land in Egremont, Massachusetts, as early as 1781 and could have introduced the young man to potential customers. Phillips might have been influenced in this formative period by another artist, J. Brown, who, working in Cheshire, Massachusetts, in 1808, painted a portrait of Laura Hall. Clear parallels can be seen between the full-length standing portrait of Laura Hall and Phillips’s earliest known efforts, the portraits of Pluma Amelia and Charles Rollin Barstow, painted in 1811.

    Phillips married Laura Brockway of Schodack, New York, in 1813 and started a successful pattern of patronage that would continue throughout his life. Unlike many itinerant artists, who traveled a wide radius seeking commissions, Phillips established himself in a community and then painted in the area for a period of years. This permitted a familiarity between artist and client that is evident in portraits that are acute personal studies. The portraits of these years are ethereal in color, large in scale, and minimal in compositional elements. Phillips at this time instituted the compositional convention of males seated with one arm swooping over a chair back. By the 1820s, the portraits were reduced in scale but projected an increased drama through strong color contrasts, a style that was fully realized during the Kent period.

    In 1830, shortly after the death of his first wife, Phillips married Jane Ann Caulkins of Northeast, New York, and spent the following years portraying prominent families along both sides of the Hudson River from his home base in Rhinebeck and, later, Amenia, New York. Phillips codified his representations in this period, using conventional motifs and poses for both his own expedience and predictability for his clients. Each portrait, nevertheless, is a fresh and penetrating likeness of a specific individual. Phillips moved back to the Berkshires sometime before 1860 and continued to paint residents of the area until his death. After a career remarkable for its longevity, productivity, and chameleon-like ability to change with the times, Phillips died in 1865, in Curtisville (now Interlaken). Here his obituary in the Berkshire County Eagle read, simply, “Died at Curtisville, Stockbridge, July 14th, very suddenly, Mr. A. Phillips, aged 78.”

    Phillips was living and working in Dutchess County, New York, when he painted Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, one of four strikingly similar portraits of children he produced. In each painting, the child wears a brilliant red dress over crisply pleated white pantaloons, with red- or black-slippered feet peeping past the sawtooth hems. Their arms cross their bodies in a diagonal parallel arrangement, and they sit with a sweet-faced dog lying by their feet. This, however, is the only portrait in the group that includes a white cat, which the child holds in her arms, rationalizing the otherwise awkward pose.

    Three of the portraits depict young girls, each wearing two, three, or four strands of coral beads. Phillips is known to have used similarities of dress and other visual devices to indicate family relationships, but no link has been established among these portraits despite the suggestion that the number of strands indicates the child's age. In addition to the cat, which visually centers the composition, this portrait is further set apart from the other three by the exaggerated sweep of the neckline and sleeves that cut boldly across the canvas in a nearly horizontal plane, counterbalanced by the slope of the skirt edge. The child's delicate neck and bared shoulders, accentuated by the four strands of coral beads, the double row of pleats on the pantaloons, and the lace trim on the sleeves, are indications of the extra care that Phillips lavished on the portrait of this unidentified child.

    Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, considered Phillips's masterpiece, belongs to the artist's so-called Kent period from about 1829 to 1838, which is defined by the strong contrast of pale faces emerging like jewels from velvety dark backgrounds, heightened bloom in the cheeks, smooth—almost enameled—brushwork, a concentration on the faces of the sitters, and highly geometric treatment of the bodies. The Kent portraits mark a stunning departure from the luminous visions Phillips painted during the romantic years of the teens through the twenties. His mastery as a colorist, honed during those years, is rethought and applied in the new palette of the 1830s. The success of Phillips's essentially mathematical approach to mass, volume, and composition is dependent upon a precise and delicate balance of all the elements. This geometric structure and codified repetitions of format from canvas to canvas combine to create purposeful masterpieces that convey both a sense of individual clarity as well as cultural unity.
  • Photo by John Parnell