I am currently in the docent training program at the Amon Carter museum and learning about the paintings held there. One that appealed strongly to me is a portrait by Ammi Phillips of a girl and a cat. Created around 1814, it’s one of the earlier works in the collection.
Likely entirely self-taught, Ammi Phillips was the type of painter known as a limner, which is essentially a non-academic portrait painter creating these works as a source of income. Phillips worked in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. His given name, Ammi, means “my people,” and it could not be more appropriate considering this prolific American folk artist would put thousands of his people on canvas.
For a long time the works by Phillips were thought to be by two different artists, a “border” limner, referring to the border between New York and Connecticut and the Kent limner, referring to the town in Connecticut. The works from his ‘border’ period (c. 1812–19), are marked by simple forms, shaded outlines and soft, pastel colors. In the Kent period of the1830s the works were compositions presenting his sitters as large, stylized shapes that nearly fill the canvas, while his use of rich, saturated colors create striking contrasts of light and dark.
The painting at the Amon Carter is from the early period and one of many that include small animals. This one is particularly special to me because of the folk aspects that have the eyes of the young girl at a cross and they eyes of the cat in different planes on its head. If we were talking about a trained portrait painter, this may not add much to it, but because the charm is in the folk nature of the work, these aspects can only add to the charm.
Most of the works by Phillips that come to market are from the later period. A Phillips painting of a young girl and cat from the 1830s set a record for in 2007 at more than $1.2 million.
It’s worth while to explore the role of portrait paintings in the early 19th Century. In 1810, most walls in American homes were pretty much bare, save a mirror or two. The first images to enter the home would not be destined for the walls, rather they would be placed on dinner tables. Staffordshire transfer-ware plates presented country scenes from England and America. Unlike most anything else you could purchase at the time, whether it be a silver teapot or mahogany chest, a portrait was a completely unrecoverable cost. Portraits represented the increasing presence of inheritable wealth in American society. Before this wealth emerged, most Americans live and died in near or complete obscurity even to near descendents. All of a sudden we begin to see people such as this young girl with a cat, recorded in oil paint for future generations to see.
To have a portrait painted would have cost about the same amount as a silver teapot, a considerable sum. But remember the cost of teapot, like a piece of furniture and many other “consumer goods” of the time was almost entirely recoverable. I suppose the price of eternal obscurity was infinitely greater.