Ammi Phillips painted for more than fifty years, producing perhaps as many as two thousand portraits in so many disparate styles that his works were once thought to be by several different artists. Currently about five hundred works can be attributed to him, most sharing the characteristics of plain backgrounds, strongly contrasting light and dark elements, and awkwardly articulated figures.
Born in Colebrook, Connecticut, in 1788, Phillips traveled often through western Connecticut and Massachusetts and through New York state. Advertisements in the Berkshire Reporter indicate that he was offering his services as a professional artist in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, as early as July 1809. His earliest identified works, for example his full-length portraits of Charles Rollin and Pluma Amelia Barstow, painted in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1811, may have been influenced by Connecticut limners active in the late eighteenth century, particularly J. Brown (active 1806-1808) and Reuben Moulthrop (1763-1814). By 1813 the artist and his wife were settled in Troy, New York, shortly thereafter moving to Rhinebeck. The portraits of this period (1812-1819), all of which were executed in towns along the New York-Massachusetts border, were once given to a hand called "The Border Limner." They are distinguished by a light, almost pastel palette, three-quarter or occasionally full-length figures, faces with dark-lined eyes, and a primitive attempt at conveying volume.
In the next decade Phillips' paintings show greater realism, deeper coloring, and increased sophistication. He evidences a new interest in costume that may derive from contact with the academic Albany artist Ezra Ames (1768-1836), who lavished attention on the shawls and lace in his women's portraits.
During the early 1830s Phillips was located in Amenia, New York, and painted in nearby Clermont, Rhinebeck, Germantown, Pine Plains, and Northeast. In 1836 he left for Kent, Connecticut, the town which gave its name to another distinctive period (1829-1838) of Phillips' career. The work of the so-called "Kent Limner" was first isolated when a group of ancestral portraits were brought together for a 1924 summer fair in that town. Among them were eight which shared markedly similar characteristics.
After 1840, Phillips' portraits contain less costume detail. These later paintings were apparently executed rapidly and with great assurance. The last of Phillips' work, those of the 1860s, inevitably show the influence of photography.
When the newly widowed Phillips was married to his second wife in 1830, the record listed his occupation as "portrait painter." Unlike many untrained portraitists who had to resort to other means to supplement their income, Phillips seems to have pursued a single vocation. Although he and his family never settled in one town for any great length of time, he was far from a struggling itinerant. He generally painted several members of the same family and through these connections seems to have had a steady flow of work. He was known to the academically trained painter John Vanderlyn, who commented to his nephew on the profitable and socially advantageous aspects of Phillips' craft.
A century after his death in 1865 in Curtissville, outside of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Phillips was given his first one-man exhibition, followed by a major comprehensive show three years later. Today he is recognized as the most prolific and one of the most important naive portraitists in nineteenth-century America. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Holdridge, Barbara C., and Lawrence B. Holdridge. "Ammi Phillips." Art in America 48 (Summer 1960): 98-103.
Holdridge, Barbara C., and Lawrence B. Holdridge. "Ammi Phillips, 1788-1865." Connecticut Historical Society Bulletin 30 (October 1965): 97-146.
Holdridge, Barbara C., and Lawrence B. Holdridge. Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter 1788-1865. Exh. cat. Museum of American Folk Art, New York, 1969.
Black, Mary C. "The Search for Ammi Phillips." Art News 75 (April 1976): 86-89.
Black, Mary C. "Ammi Phillips Portraits Rediscovered." Antiques 132 (September 1987): 558-559.
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 271-272.