Ammi Phillips painted more than six hundred known portraits in the border areas of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts during a career that spanned more than fifty years. From at least 1810 until his death in 1865, Phillips moved with his family for years at a time into regions of New York State and Massachusetts, where he then painted commissions within a close radius. Either the artist or his work, therefore, was known by the people he painted, and—unlike most painters of his day—he was able to earn a living for fifty-five years purely through his painting efforts and without recourse to farming or other activities. His compositions underwent several dramatic changes that reflected both his personal development as an artist and a response to the prevailing aesthetic of each period. This adaptability may partially account for Phillips’ continued commissions long after the daguerreotype and later photographic processes had virtually replaced painted portraiture.
This portrait, along with its companion, Gentleman in a Black Cravat, was painted toward the end of the artist’s so-called Kent period, from 1829 until 1838. Both paintings exhibit the conventions that Phillips incorporated into his portraits at this time, which include dark backgrounds and crisp, precise renderings. In addition, the paintings are defined by strong contrasts of color, with faces emerging like jewels from dark, velvety backgrounds; heightened color in the cheeks; smooth, enameled brushwork; and a geometric, decorative treatment of the bodies. The men's dark suits sink into the surrounding darkness, making their faces and hands—often holding a newspaper—the primary elements in the compositions. Women are usually posed with their hands occupied with a book and their heads lightly poised on elongated and gracefully leaning necks. From his only known advertisements, placed in 1810 and 1811, we learn that Phillips promised accurate likenesses according to the current style. The exactitude with which he has delineated details of the woman’s dress in this portrait suggests he followed this custom throughout his career. The consistently stark simplicity of Phillips’s compositions derives from his Connecticut heritage and the important portraiture tradition that was established there after the Revolutionary War.
Stacy C. Hollander, "Gentleman in a Black Cravat and Lady in a Gold-Colored Dress," in American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 331.