Ammi Phillips

 

Phillips was a skilled and prolific portrait painter whose biblical name, meaning “my people,” was a prescient indication of the legacy he was to leave of friends and neighborsliving primarily in the border areas of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. His long career and significant number of extant paintings provide a uniqueopportunity to assess broad changes in popular taste over time, as well as one artist’s ability to meet those changes. That Phillips was successful in his efforts for morethan fifty years is suggested by the fact that several distinct bodies of work, once ascribed to the “Border Limner,” the “Kent Limner,” and other unidentified artists,were demonstrated in 1959 by Barbara and Lawrence Holdridge to have been the production of a single artist: Ammi Phillips, working at different points in his career.One clue to his endurance lies in the early and only known advertisements that Phillips placed, in 1809 and 1810, when he was working in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Inthese notices, the young artist asserts that he will portray his clients with “perfect shadows and elegantly dressed in the prevailing fashions of the day,” a promise thatPhillips kept for the next five decades.Phillips came to the attention of the modern art world in 1924, when eight seemingly identical portraits, which were part of the legacy of Kent, Connecticut, families,were exhibited at a summer fair in that town. The portraits’ artist, dubbed the Kent Limner thereafter, was widely admired by modernist artists who recognized in his portraits a reductive and abstract approach that resonated with their own work. The portraits coincidently gave rise to the popular and persistent myth that folk painterscompleted “stock bodies” for their paintings during the winter months, and traveled during the warmer times of the year painting individual portraits onto those bodies.Phillips was born in Colebrook, Connecticut, in 1788. His art training, if any, is not known, but it has been speculated that the spare aesthetic of his portraits mayhave been influenced by the work of Connecticut artist Reuben Moulthrop (1763–1814), who painted Phillips’ namesake, the Reverend Ammi Ruhamah Robbins, in nearby Norfolk. Phillips was also almost certainly aware of a Massachusetts artist, James Brown (active 1806–1808), whose 1808 full-length portrait of Laura Hall
appears to have been the direct model for Phillips’ 1811 portrait of Pluma Amelia Barstow. Although Phillips was listed in his father’shousehold in the 1810 census, he was already painting in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and advertising his “extensive experience.” As no portraits from this earliest period have yet been identified, his competence must be gauged from portraits of 1811 and 1812. Based upon these examples, Phillips’ skills at this point wererudimentary, yet many stylistic traits were already established: almond-shaped eyes, generous, off-center mouths, heavy outlining, few props, and plain backgrounds.Following his marriage in 1813 to Laura Brockway of Schodack, New York, Phillips was working in New York State, where he painted masterful portraits of Harriet Campbell and Harriet Leavens. Executed just a few years later than Pluma Amelia Barstow, the young women are similar in pose, but the dark palette of theBarstow portrait and the gangly awkwardness of the sitter have been translated into ethereal visions of tensile strength and delicate beauty in the shimmering, pearlyhues of the Romantic age. Color fields now delineate the floor and walls, and a few key props balance the horizontal and vertical planes of the composition.The luminous Romanticism of these portraits yields to an increasing realism by the end of the 1820s, reverberating with the sensibilities of the Jacksonian age. In1830 Phillips’ wife died, and he remarried shortly thereafter. The purposeful portraits of the ensuing so-called Kent years are codified depictions of men sitting formallyin stenciled or grained chairs, wearing dark suits, and holding newspapers or books in their hands, and women leaning forward from the waist, their solemn faces perched on long, graceful necks. The canvases are studies in dark and light, mass and composition. Brilliant colors and translucent skin tones emerge dramatically fromvelvety backgrounds, focusing attention on the sitter. The iconic Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, painted during this period, is one of a small but significant groupof portraits of young children wearing similar red dresses with a dog by their feet. The portrait was included in “The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776–1876,” theseminal exhibition presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974, and more recently was reproduced as a United States postal stamp (1997–1998).In 1840 Phillips painted a millwright from Somers, New York, and inscribed the reverse with his own name, the name and age of the sitter, and the year he paintedthe portrait. Because it was painted in a style similar to the Kent Limner’s, George Sunderland became the Rosetta stone by which Barbara and Lawrence Holdridgewere able to match names, signatures, and distinctive characteristics from the “Border” years, before 1820, to the “Kent” portraits of 1829 to 1838. By this time,Phillips was vying with photographic portraits, and he once again adapted his style to a new aesthetic. His portraits after 1840 reflect the rich, saturated colors of theVictorian age, as well as the staged aspect of the studio photograph. They also become more sculptural, in response to the “true to life” aspect of photography.Sometime before 1860, Phillips moved back to the Berkshires, and is listed in the census as a resident of Curtisville (now Interlaken, near Stockbridge). By the timeof his death, Phillips had painted hundreds, possibly thousands, of portraits, and had ventured as far north as Ticonderoga, New York, in the Adirondacks, and as far south as Bedford, in Westchester County, New York. In 1965 the Holdridges organized the first exhibition to present the full range of Phillips’ oeuvre for theConnecticut Historical Society, and had identified 219 portraits. More than six hundred remarkable paintings, created between 1811 and 1862, are now attributed toAmmi Phillips, perfectly reflecting the prevailing fashions of the day and the people who wore them.