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American Folk Art Portraiture by Ammi Phillips

In November 2012, we sold an exceptional pair of portraits by Ammi Phillips for a client. Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) is widely regarded as one of the most important American folk artists of his period. As a self-taught portraitist, Phillips traveled throughout New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, creating a wide and prolific body of work. Phillips’ work displays a passion for experimentation within the formal formula of portraiture, with a style that grew and developed in distinct phases so unique that his paintings were originally attributed to multiple artists.

Phillips’ earliest known portraits have an air of lightness from his use of soft pastel colors and simple forms. The early works were initially attributed to an unknown artist who became known as “The Border Limner.” These early works had a more ethereal and delicate appearance; the subjects have elongated forms, often arranged in slightly awkward poses that glance shyly to the side.

"Mrs. Wilbur (Sarah 'Sally' Stearns) Sherman (1789-1845) and daughter Sarah (1814-1872)," Ammi Phillips
“Mrs. Wilbur (Sarah ‘Sally’ Stearns) Sherman (1789-1845) and daughter Sarah (1814-1872),” Ammi Phillips


The Border Period was followed by the Kent Period; in the 1830s, Phillips was gaining a greater number of commissions to paint the prominent families of the area. His portraits began to incorporate a darker, more contrasting palette, increasingly realistic and defined facial features and exaggerated yet conventional poses. Phillips employed a strikingly dramatic use of light and deep shadow. The portrait of a young girl and her cat below is a good example of how during the Kent Period, Phillips dressed his subjects in more vibrantly hued clothing to create visual drama.

"Girl in red dress with cat and dog," portrait by Ammi Phillips
“Girl in red dress with cat and dog,” Ammi Phillips


The paintings sold for our client were a wonderful matched pair depicting an attractive, soberly dressed middle-aged couple. The lady’s forward-leaning pose is characteristic of the Kent Period, while the sensitively observed faces have a delightful lifelike quality exemplary of Phillips’ later works. Phillips’ mastery of detail is apparent in the deftly executed lace bonnet framing the lady’s face. The subtle play of light and shadow across the subjects’ faces and clothing is beautifully done.

Portraits of a Lady and Gentleman from Dover Plains, New York by Ammi Phillips
“Portraits of a Lady and Gentleman from Dover Plains, New York,” Ammi Phillips


These two paintings are a superb example of why portraits by Ammi Phillips are so desirable. By his death in 1865, Ammi Phillips had created an incredible body of work consisting of widely varied styles, sizes, compositions and sitters; over 600 paintings have been attributed to Phillips at this time. His paintings encompass a staggering variety of styles, sizes, composition and sitters. As one of the most prolific and skilled artists of his period, portraits by Ammi Phillips are highly sought after and valued.

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folk art, oil paintings