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As the life and work of Ammi Phillips has emerged, the Connecticut native has been revealed as a prolific artist of enormous complexity and scope, whose imagination, sensitivity, and sheer individualism makes him a star in the universe of American naïve painters. Ammi Phillips was the second child and second son in a family of as many as eleven siblings (of whom only eight have been firmly identified). In the years between 1808 and 1821, as the rest of the family prepared to pull up stakes in Colebrook, Connecticut, and replant themselves in Colebrook, Ohio, Ammi also left the family home. In 1809, when he was about 21 years old, he advertised his availability to render “correct likenesses” in the Berkshire Reporter in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, about 40 miles north of Colebrook. Untutored but not unambitious, Ammi Phillips set out to become an itinerant portraitist, purveying his skills in the towns and hamlets adjacent to his Colebrook roots in an area loosely defined by the valleys of the Hudson and Housatonic Rivers. It was the beginning of an enormously successful regional career. Today Ammi Phillips is among the best-known American folk artists, but with this caveat: as was the common practice among folk artists, Phillips signed very few of his numerous paintings. Though over six hundred works are now attributed to him, until 1960, the memory of Ammi Phillips survived only in an obscure corner of the Berkshire Mountains.

Although there is no record of Phillips having had any formal art instruction, on his travels he doubtless encountered the work of other limners working in the same area as well as the work of more academic artists. Notably, Ezra Ames (1768–1836), a generation older than Phillips, modeled his painting practice after the work of Gilbert Stuart, replicating a sophisticated style of painting that reflected the taste of contemporary London. Ames painted over 700 portraits as well as landscapes, history, and genre. Active primarily between 1800 and 1820, he was a prominent citizen of Albany, serving in his later years as a bank president. As Vanderlyn shrewdly perceived, Phillips painted for a different audience, his portraits meeting the needs and tastes of his rural gentry clientele. Phillips took the limner, or folk, style to its highest level of artistry. It was Phillips’ chosen aesthetic, different from the cosmopolitan, international mode embraced by Ezra Ames, Gilbert Stuart, and John Vanderlyn. 

As the century progressed, Phillips adjusted his style to meet the circumstances of his times and his clientele. While he may have begun at first with profiles, he soon acquired the skills to paint fully realized portraits. This portrait, an unidentified woman has been dated to sometime between 1824 and 1829, is in the style of Phillips’ so called “Realist Period,” when he had brought his skills to a high polish. 

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