Ammi Phillips

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Ammi Phillips, Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, 1830-1835

Ammi Phillips (April 24, 1788 – July 11, 1865) was a New England portrait painter. He worked as an itinerant painter in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York for five decades. After his death he was forgotten for decades until his oeuvre was reconstructed by art historians.


Phillips was born in Colebrook, Connecticut in 1788, beginning a life that spanned from the beginning of George Washington's presidency through to the end of the American Civil War. His extensive, continuously evolving oeuvre over a period of five decades provides posterity with a vast archive of early American self-fashioning.

While his early education remains obscure to history (although Phillips is often considered a self-taught artist, he may have apprenticed with another artist)[1] it's clear that Phillips made up his mind to pursue a career as an artist while still young. He enters the documentary record as an artist in 1809, at the age of 21, with advertisements in both The Berkshire Reporter[2] and a Pittsfield, Massachusetts tavern[3] proclaiming his talent for painting "correct likenesses," distinguished by “perfect shadows and elegantly dressed in the prevailing fashions of the day.” Although Phillips also advertised his talent for "fancy painting, silhouettes, sign and ornamental painting,"[2] he soon specialized as a portraitist. His work satisfied the local standard, and within two years Phillips was receiving regular portrait commissions from community leaders in this area of western Massachusetts.[2]

Unlike Phillips' illustrious predecessors in American art, such as Benjamin West of Philadelphia and John Singleton Copley of Boston, Phillips lived and worked on the rural frontier—a difference which is key to understanding his career. Though he was able to successfully market his skills from a young age, it's likely that the relatively sparse demand for painted portraits (a luxury good that reflects and signals a certain social standing) outside the capitals was the main factor necessitating an itinerant career that saw the artist move regularly, family in tow, between western Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Hudson River Valley. The artist moved on as he exhausted the demand of the local community for painted "likenesses". This wandering lifestyle is archetypically Romantic, rather contrasting with the bourgeois domesticity of his portraits, which are almost always set within interiors.

Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog[edit]

The artist's most famous work is Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, which is in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York. The painting is one of a group of four portraits of children in vibrant red with a dog on the floor that Phillips produced while living in Dutchess County, New York, in the mid-1830s.[3] This iconic work is the only one that features a cat.

The image is frequently reproduced and admired. It was featured on a United States postage stamp in 1998. Nicholas B.A. Nicholson wrote a novel told from the perspective of the depicted girl.[4]

Ken Johnson, an art critic for The New York Times, has repeatedly praised the picture. In a review of the American Folk Art Museum's exhibition Self-Taught Genius, Johnson contends that Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog is "one of the most beautiful paintings made by any American artist ever."[5] Previously he described the work as "heartbreakingly lovely."[6]

The novelist and art historian Teju Cole, in the third chapter of his debut novel Open City, describes a visit to the American Folk Art Museum. The narrator notices and evaluates Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog: "At the landing of the first flight of stairs, I saw an oil portrait of a young girl in a starchy red dress holding a white cat. A dog peeked out from under her chair. The details were saccharine, but they could not obscure the force and beauty of the painting."[7]

Rediscovery of the artist and reconstruction of his oeuvre[edit]

Phillips' modern rediscovery began in 1924, when a group of portraits of women, shown leaning forward in three-quarter view and wearing dark dresses, were displayed in an antique show in Kent, Connecticut. The anonymous painter of these strongly colored works, which dated from the 1830s, became known as the "Kent Limner", after the locality where they had come to light.[8]

Stylistically distinct from those of the "Kent Limner", a second group of early-19th-century paintings emerged after 1940 in the area near the Connecticut–New York border. Attributed at the time to an unknown "Border Limner", these works, dating from the period 1812–1819, were characterized by soft pastel hues, as seen in the portrait of Harriet Leavens, now in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.[9]

It was not until 1968 that Ammi Phillips's identity as the painter of both groups of portraits was established. Additional works were identified, showing the artist's transition from the delicate coloration of the Border period to the bold and somber works that followed. Some paintings that had previously been attributed to John Bradley were also identified as the work of Ammi Phillips.[10] By 1976, there were approximately 400 paintings securely attributed to Phillips, who is now recognized as one of the most prolific American folk painters of his time.[8]

The art historian Mary Black says Phillips's early and late styles reveal the untrained artist's inventiveness in dealing with the difficulty of representing the figure: "In his Border period he made his limitations work for him and the lumpy coats, gangling limbs, huge hands, wooden arms—even the tables tilted at crazy angles—were all part of well-composed and beautiful portraits. Later he glossed over problems with anatomy by using flat dark-colored backgrounds and dark dresses and suits".[8] Phillips's work influenced the style of his younger contemporary, Erastus Salisbury Field, who worked as an itinerant portrait painter in the region just east of Phillips.[8]



  1. ^ Black, Mary (intro). Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter 1788-1865. Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., New York: 1981. p. 10.
  2. ^ a b c Hollander, Stacy C. (Spring 1994). "Revisiting Ammi Phillips". Folk Art. 42–45. Retrieved June 16, 2014.
  3. ^ a b Retrieved June 16, 2014.
  4. ^ Retrieved June 16, 2014.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Cole, Teju. Open City. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012. P. 36.
  8. ^ a b c d Black 1976.
  9. ^ Mills, Sally. "Phillips, Ammi." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved June 2, 2014.
  10. ^ Black, Mary C.; Stuart H. Feld (October 1966). "'Drawn by I. Bradley from Great Britton'". Antiques 90: 501–509. 


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