Early American portraits were intended to capture individual likenesses. At the same time, the commonalities between examples of this form can be striking, forging visual connections between sitters through the use of comparable formats, poses, clothing, accessories, and facial expressions. These distinctions and similarities convey a desire to ally oneself with like-minded community members, even in the course of expressing individuality. They can also demonstrate an artist’s wish to please their patrons, creating a composition with well-practiced components which could be executed with confidence and efficiency.
Ammi Phillips was a prolific portraitist, painting hundreds of likenesses over the course of his decades-long career, working in the rural towns along the borders of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Even as his compositions sometimes had standardized elements—seen here in the similar poses adopted by two handsomely dressed men—the artist’s talent at capturing emotion allows each portrait to speak powerfully for itself.
Phillips’ depictions of children are especially evocative and beloved. On view here are two iconic portraits of children, each from a distinctive period in the artist’s career. The Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog was made in the 1830s and forms part of a group of several portraits of similarly dressed children, in which tenderness of expression comingles with boldness of color and form.
Frederick A. Gale is a highly unusual example of Phillips’ full-scale compositions, with the vibrant greens and reds of the boy’s clothing set strikingly against an ethereal pale background characteristic of the artist’s earliest works. The luminescent work speaks to Phillips’ uncanny ability to capture the beauty and emotional power of a child’s simultaneous innocence, mystery, and liveliness.