Friday, April 17, 2009

Mother and Child in Gray Dresses

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
Ammi Phillips is recognized as one of the most successful and prolific American portrait painters from the first half of the 19th century. Phillips was born in 1788 in Connecticut and by 1811 he had begun a lifelong career as a portraitist, working in western Connecticut, Massachusetts, and in the neighboring counties of upstate New York. In 1813 Phillips married Laura Brockway (1792-1830) of Schodack, New York, and they settled in nearby Nassau before moving to Troy about 1817. Unlike many itinerant artists of his day, Phillips moved his growing family for years at a time into the communities where he hoped to find potential patrons. By becoming a member of the community he served, Phillips became the logical choice for local portrait commissions, limiting the need to advertise.

Phillips’ painting style evolved over his 50 year career, and scholars classify his works into five time periods. Mother and Child in Gray Dresses is an excellent representation of Phillips’ Realistic Period (1820-1828). During this period, Phillips’ style reflects the conventions of academic painters with whom he came into contact. His palette changed from soft hues to richer colors and dark backgrounds. He cleverly expressed his appreciation for juxtapositions of light and dark color by painting the sitters in white-gray dresses that contrast sharply with the dark gray background. A single light source from the left of the canvas casts the sitters into partial shadow. The artist conveyed his delight with fabrics as he painted the woman's dress with rays of light falling on her sleeves and drenched her fichu (scarf) in more light, making it shimmer and appear transparent.

Mother and Child in Gray Dresses is on view in American Treasures from the Permament Collections until May 6.
Mother and Child in Gray Dresses, ca. 1825, attributed to Ammi Phillips (1788-1865), oil on canvas, gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0267.1961

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