Arts and Leisure

The Heartbreakingly Lovely Art of Ammi Phillips

Ammi Phillips, a masterful folk artist, was forgotten for decades until his work came to light in a Kent, Conn., antique show in 1924.

ammi phillipsToday, Ammi Phillips’ ‘most famous painting, ‘Girl in Red Dress With Cat and Dog,’ highlights the American Folk Art Museum collection.

New York Times art critic called it ‘one of the most beautiful paintings made by any American artist ever.’ He also called it ‘heartbreakingly lovely.’ Many people have reproduced it, the U.S. postal service featured it on a stamp and a novelist wrote a book about it.

Ammi Phillips

Ammi (pronounced ‘AM-eye’) Phillips was born on April 24, 1788 in Colebrook, Conn. As a young man in 1809 he advertised in the Berkshire Record his ability to paint ‘correct likenesses’ with ‘perfect shadows and elegantly dressed in the prevailing fashions of the day.’

Unlike contemporaries like John Singleton Copley of Boston, Phillips worked on the sparsely populated frontier. He roamed the countryside with his family to find customers. Apparently, he found it a romantic and satisfying way to live.

People then viewed portraits as status symbols, and Phillips soon earned commissions from influential people in Berkshire County, Mass. He painted for the next 50 years, moving to western Massachusetts, Connecticut and the Hudson River Valley in search of new customers.

He painted ‘Girl in Red Dress With Cat and Dog’ in Dutchess County, N.Y., in 1830.

And he probably influenced a younger itinerant painter in the region, Erastus Salisbury Field.

The Kent Limner

Ammi Phillips died on July 11, 1865, in Curtisville (now Interlaken), Mass., near Stockbridge. For the next 60 years people forgot about him. Then came the antique show in 1924, which displayed a group of 1830s-era portraits of women in dark dresses. The unknown painter of the strongly colored works got the nickname ‘The Kent Limner.’

Ammi Phillips, 'Portrait of a Lady in an Elaborate Lace Bonnet'

Ammi Phillips, ‘Portrait of a Lady in an Elaborate Lace Bonnet’

Finding Ammi

About 15 years later, another group of folk portraits came to light near the border of New York and Connecticut. These were painted earlier, with pastel coloring and tentative rendering. The unknown artist of those works was called the ‘Border Limner.’

Ammi Phillips, 'Mrs. Wilbur Sherman and Daughter Sarah'

Ammi Phillips, ‘Mrs. Wilbur Sherman and Daughter Sarah’

Two folk art collectors, Barbara and Larry Holdridge, bought one of the few paintings Ammi Phillips signed, ‘George Sunderland,’ in 1958. They believed the Kent Limner and the Border Limner ha painted it.

For decades they searched for his work, pored over Census records and interviewed Phillips’ still-living relatives and subjects. In 1965, the Holdridges organized an exhibit of 219 Ammi Phillips’ paintings. Three years later, art historians established that Ammi Phillips had painted both groups.

By 1976, art historians identified more than 400 paintings as his work.

In 1985, an anonymous donor paid more than $1 million for ‘Girl in Red Dress With Cat and Dog.’ The secret benefactor then gave it to the American Folk Art Museum.

Hilton Kramer, the starchy New York Times art critic, called Phillips ‘amazing’ in a 1970 review of an exhibit of Phillips’ work. The portrait of Mrs. Isaac Cox, he wrote, was of ‘superb quality.’

To the modern eye, the portrait of Mrs. Cox particularly speaks with a clarity, precision, and sympathy that places it considerably nearer to our own standards of artistic probity than anything to be found in the common run of ‘serious’ painting at the time. If this is ‘innocent’ painting, it is innocent only of those flatulent academic pretensions which remained the curse of so much of our art in the 19th century.

ammi phillips cox

Mrs. Isaac Cox by Ammi Phillips

 This story about Ammi Phillips was updated  in 2020.

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