Since children on school tours often ask about the Ammi Phillips painting in Great American Thing, I did a bit of research on him (first question: isn’t “Ammi” a woman?).
Phillips, Ammi (1788-1865)
Colebrook artist Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) was a self taught portrait painter, learning his style from imported prints. He traveled throughout New England with his easel and paints seeking commissions from the growing middle class, newly prosperous after Independence.
(b Colebrook, CT, 24 April 1788; d Curtisville [now Interlaken], MA, 11 July 1865). American painter.
Apparently self-taught, he began his prolific and successful career as a portrait painter c. 1811. During his lifetime, he moved several times across the borders of New York, western Connecticut and Massachusetts in search of commissions. Like many of the itinerant artists of the 19th century, he struggled to achieve pictorial solutions and a distinctive style, yet he developed so dramatically that historians originally classified his paintings as the work of two different artists: ‘The Border Limner’ and ‘The Kent Limner’.
The earliest works, from his ‘Border’ period (c. 1812–19), are marked by simple forms, shaded outlines and soft, pastel colours. They include ambitious full-length portraits (e.g. Harriet Leavens, c. 1815; Cambridge, MA, Fogg) as well as three-quarter and bust-length examples (Dr Russell Dorr, c. 1814–15; Williamsburg, VA, Rockefeller Flk A. Col.).
In the 1820s he experimented with techniques and formats, developing an attention to detail and naturalism that suggests the influence of Albany portrait painter Ezra Ames.
By the 1830s, the decade of his ‘Kent’ portraits, his compositions present his sitters as large, stylized shapes that nearly fill the canvas, while his use of rich, saturated colours creates striking contrasts of light and dark. Typically in this decade, his female sitters are shown leaning forward while male sitters sit upright with one hand draped over a chairback. Among his most appealing and successful works are portraits of children from this period. Blond Boy with Primer, Peach and Dog (c. 1838; priv. col., see Lipman and Armstrong, p. 143) exemplifies the bold simplicity of his compositions and the dramatic success of his designs.
After the 1840s he returned to more conventional poses, and by the late 1850s his work showed the influence of photography. He continued to work at least until 1862, the year of his last dated paintings.
From ‘The Border Limner’ period (c. 1812-19):
Harriet Leavens (c. 1815) by Ammi Phillips
From ‘The Kent Limner’ period (1930s):
Portrait of a Girl in a Red Dress (1835) by Ammi Phillips
9 works by Ammi Phillips at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC:
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