PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE COLLECTOR
Stacy C. Hollander, Senior Curator, American Folk Art Museum, New York:
Ammi Phillips (1788–1865) came to wide public recognition in 1924, when local residents in Kent, Connecticut, put their ancestor portraits on display during a summer fair. The iconic repetition of women in dark dresses, with long, elegant, leaning necks and pale faces gleaming forth from deeply toned backgrounds, and gentleman in dark suits with white shirt fronts blazing forth, created a sensation in the art world for the unidentified artist who came to be known as the Kent Limner. There was no thought that these portraits, sharp and clear as a knife's edge, were related to an earlier group of portraits on a larger scale and painted in muted, dreamy, pale colors that were attributed to the Border Limner. Years of painstaking research by the husband and wife team, Lawrence and Barbara Holdridge, and supported by curator and scholar Mary Black, revealed that Ammi Phillips was indeed the artist of these two vastly disparate groups of paintings, as well as numbers of portraits that could be dated earlier and later than the Border and Kent periods.Phillips was born in 1788, in Colebrook, Connecticut. It is not known whether he received any formal training as an artist, but he was already painting in Pittsfield, Massachusetts by the age of twenty-one, based upon two notices placed in Berkshire area newspapers in 1809 and 1810. In these advertisements, the young Phillips boldly proclaimed his ability to capture a correct likeness and offered a money back guarantee, but it was his promise to portray the sitter "elegantly dressed in the prevailing fashions of the day" that was to become a leitmotif of his work and a key to his unusual longevity as a portrait painter. At a time when most artists were forced to diversify their activities to support themselves and their families, Phillips worked only as a portrait painter for more than fifty years, moving with his growing family from one locale to another primarily in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York, and traveling a small radius from each home base in search of commissions. Phillips demonstrated an uncanny ability to adapt his talents to the taste of each age. In fact, until the early 1960s, it was generally believed that several artists were responsible for the portraits that we now recognize as the work of Ammi Phillips working at different points in time.
Phillips was to paint hundreds, perhaps thousands of portraits during his career, but is especially renowned today for one of the most celebrated groups of nineteenth century portraits in America, comprised of four lovely and serene children wearing similar red dresses. Of the four, only one child is identified, little Andrew Jackson Ten Broeck who was painted in Clermont, New York, in 1834. The child is sitting outdoors under a hickory tree, a tribute to his namesake, President Jackson, known as "old hickory." The three girls, on the other hand, are sitting indoors on carpet-covered ottomans upon which their skirts are spread full and bell-like, providing ballast for the horizontal sweep of the low necklines and sleeves, their tender shoulders exposed as warranted by the current fashion. A small brown dog with a wide smile sits at the feet of each child, and one additionally holds a white cat in her arms. The three girls presumably were painted around the same time and probably in the same area as Andrew Jackson Ten Broeck, based upon Phillips's patterns of itinerancy. It would also not be unusual for the artist to use the similar red dresses to indicate a familial relationship among the children, a device he employed on other occasions, or to establish a connection of community, status, and geography.
Portrait painters of the folk genre developed a visual repertory upon which they could draw from portrait to portrait and over time, a mental suitcase of ideas and motifs. The repetition provided confidence to both artist and client, as each could be tolerably certain of the result, and the portrait could be enhanced with the addition of personal details and visual references as mutually agreed upon. The introduction of a large expanse of brilliant red for a sitter's dress does not appear before Phillips's Kent period, from about 1829–1838. Vermillion was an expensive pigment with a long history of accrued meaning. Red was a color of wealth, faith, and innocence, symbolic meanings the artist may have known through convention. By this time, it was also a popular color in clothing for younger children, perhaps because of its protective connotations, like coral beads. Phillips had used vermillion sparingly in a number of portraits of the earlier Border period, 1812–1819, but usually in small passages—the bottom of a reticule, a book, or pair of shoes. A few sitters through the 1820s were portrayed in red dresses that were deeper in tone, more of a dull red lead. It was not until the four children were painted in the 1830s that the clarity of vermillion made a significant appearance, appearing even further saturated against the deep velvety background of the portraits.
As more works by Ammi Phillips have surfaced in recent years, it seems that once introduced, the use of red dresses in portraits of children became part of the repertory, though tucked in a special pocket in the artist's mental suitcase, to be pulled out on rare occasions. These later renditions reflect changes in dress, such as the short tight sleeves in this example. The child, too, may be a little older than her predecessors, judging by the leaner face and attenuated neck that Phillips usually reserved for portraits of adult women. Additionally, there are decorative elements that make seldom appearances in the artist's oeuvre, including the draped curtain that appears from time to time beginning in the 1820s, and the bird perched on the girl's finger. Phillips was not often given to such sentimental gestures; the timeless beauty of his portraits stems in large part from their pristine austerity. But he seemingly was also a pragmatist who could and would provide the details desired by his clients, especially as photography, introduced in 1839, challenged the viability of the painted portrait.
Ammi Phillips continued to paint within a few years of his death. Sometime before 1860, he had moved from New York State to Curtissville, (now Interlaken), Massachusetts, where he died in 1865. The artist who had "correctly" reflected the changing face and taste of America for more than fifty years, "died at Curtissville, Stockbridge, July 14th, very suddenly, Mr. A. Phillips, aged 78."
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