31 in. x 25 in. (78.74 cm x 63.5 cm)
Gift of Elizabeth Bassett Crawford,
Remarkably prolific and diverse, Ammi Phillips stands out among the countless folk portraitists who worked in America before the Civil War. Born in 1788 in Colebrook, Connecticut, Phillips first appeared as an artist in western Massachusetts. Although he advertised his services as early as 1809, no portrait by him is known before 1811. By 1813 Phillips had married and moved to New York State, where he lived in various towns until 1836, when he moved to Kent, Connecticut. At the time of his death, the artist was living in Curtissville, near Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Phillips's style shifted dramatically over the course of fifty years, and for a time, scholars mistakenly attributed his portraits to several different artists. During the early part of his career, Phillips painted in a naïve mode using pale colors. By 1820 his style had become more sophisticated, darker in palette, and more concerned with details of costume. By the mid-1830s Phillips's portraits had assumed a somewhat mannered appearance shaped by economy of execution and concern with decorative line. Finally, from about 1840 until the end of his active life, Phillips adopted a sober naturalism that appears to have been conditioned by the introduction of photography.
Painted in 1830, the Currier's pendant portraits Sherman Bassett
and Hannah Bassett
mark a high point in the artist's stylistic evolution. The subjects, dressed in matching black and white, appear in seated poses that carefully mirror each other. In his right hand, Sherman Bassett holds a folded copy of Niles' Register
. Similarly, Hannah extends a folded letter in her left hand. The Bassetts' clothing, particularly Hannah's elaborate bonnet, is rendered with meticulous precision. Crisply executed contours delineate the faces of the sitters, yet their expressions do not fall into the masklike hardness that characterizes so much "primitive" portraiture. In this pair of images, Phillips succeeds admirably in blending a pleasing decorative quality with a convincing sense of naturalism.
Newspapers, letters, and books appear frequently as attributes in Phillips's portraits. Often, as in the case of the Bassetts, Phillips includes these details as a means of transmitting information about his sitters. Published in Baltimore, Niles' Register
was an important national journal whose stories transcended the political imbroglios of local partisan newspapers; its presence in Sherman Bassett's hand suggests his awareness of national events as well as his desire to move beyond the provincial scope of Upstate New York. The letter in Hannah's hand reveals her name as well as her address, North East, Dutchess County, New York. Bearing a red New York City cancel, the letter, like the newspaper, suggests the sitter's wider circle of connections. The newspaper and the letter are both dated April 10, 1830, perhaps in reference to the commission date of the portraits themselves.
Members of the Bassett family were among the first settlers of the town of North East in Dutchess County, New York. Sherman Bassett, born in 1795, became a prominent landowner in the area. He and his wife, Hannah Sornborger Bassett, had no children and were buried in the Amenia Island Cemetery in Dutchess County. Their portraits passed through the hands of descendants until they were presented to the Currier Museum of Art by Elizabeth Bassett Crawford in 2003.
Deborah Chotner, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naïve Paintings
. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1992.
Barabara C. Holdridge and Lawrence B. Holdridge. Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter 1788-1865
. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1969.
Stacy C. Hollander and Howard P. Fertig. Revisiting Ammi Phillips: Fifty Years of American Portraiture
. Ex. cat. Museum of American Folk Art, New York, 1994.
1980 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "New Hampshire Collects Painting and Sculpture." Oct. 19 - Nov. 30.
2004 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "Celebrating the Collection: Recent Acquisitions." Feb. 13 - March 14.
Inherited through the family by Elizabeth Bassett Crawford (sitter's great-great niece)
Gift to Currier Museum of Art, 2003