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Searching For The Lost Limner

"Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog" by Ammi Phillips

Travelling portrait painters were common in the 1800s, but many didn’t even sign their work. There are hundreds of these paintings attributed to one artist: a man named Ammi Phillips.

One of Phillips’ most beloved portraits – “Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog” – is about to go on display at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Curator Emelie Gevalt calls the painting “one of the most important icons of American folk art.”

“You’re arrested immediately by the brilliance of her red dress set against this lush, dark, velvety background,” Gevalt says. “But I really think it’s the face that draws us in and holds us there. The tenderness of her expression, these big beautiful eyes looking out at you with this sense of innocence and openness and her little half-smile. You really can’t look away once you’re captivated by her gaze.”

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU
Emelie Gevalt points out details on the Ammi Phillips painting "Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog" at the American Folk Art Museum's offices in Queens, N.Y.

Ammi Phillips began his career moving from town to town in western Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York’s Hudson Valley, placing ads in local papers or posting notices in taverns. He was an itinerant portrait painter – often known then as a limner.

“Ultimately the word limner comes from the same root as illuminate, and it was once used to refer to medieval manuscript painters,” Gevalt says. “But in the 18th century American colonists, it became a term to refer especially to portraitists.”

Gevalt says many people thought of painting a portrait like painting a sign or a house. It was practical. Limners weren’t seen as creative types. The “real artists” and art connoisseurs often looked down on them.

“Limner as a term fell out of use and might actually have been used in a derogatory sense in the 19th century to point out an artist’s naivete or possibly to signal non-academic painting styles such as Phillips’s.”

And since limners often didn’t sign their paintings, art historians gave them names like “the Anonymous Limner” or “the Border Limner” – as in the border of Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.

Ammi Phillips might have been forgotten, if not for a portrait of a young man named George Sunderland. That’s because the most important thing about the painting is what’s written on the back: a signature of Ammi Phillips.

This painting came into the possession of Barbara and Larry Holdridge in 1958. They wandered into a small antique shop in Fairfield County, Connecticut. They were looking for an affordable painting and spotted that portrait of George Sunderland.

Barbara Holdridge is in her 90s now and lives in Maryland, but she still remembers that day in 1958 like it was yesterday.

“On the way out of the shop, the proprietor called after us, ‘Maybe you’ll find something about the artist!’” Holdridge says.

The Holdridges scoured art history books looking for details. They dug through telephone books and old census records. They finally found an important clue when they tracked down a descendent of Ammi Phillips who helped them fill in some of the details on his life.

Later, they learned about a street fair in the small town of Kent, Connecticut, in 1924. The organizers of the fair encouraged residents to dig around their attics and basements and bring out old family portraits.

“They were all brought out on the sidewalk,” Holdridge says, “as people strolled by, they began to notice that they all seemed to be by the same artist.”

Art historians named the artist “the Kent Limner,” after the town where his paintings were found. Barbara Holdridge’s revelation came as she flipped through books of paintings thought to be done by the Kent Limner and other unknown painters.

“All of a sudden, as I was leafing through the books, a connection began to form in my head,” she says. That the painter that was recognized as simply by various appellations as the Border Limner and the Kent Limner, they all seemed to be by the same hand.”

Holdridge and her husband convinced an art historian at the Rockefeller Museum in Virginia. Her name was Mary Black.

“We sat in the stacks at the Rockefeller Museum for hours,” she says. “And we went at it until Mary had to agree because of one thing: the jewelry and the book. The same jewelry appeared in the very early paintings and the later paintings that were definitely Ammi Phillips and the same book appeared several times.”

With the help of art historian Mary Black, curators and conservators now paid attention. They later agreed these particular limners were all Ammi Phillips. Today, historians still only have fragmented details of Phillips’s life. He was born in Connecticut in 1788. He also painted signs and did more elaborate work.

Barbara Holdridge says she hopes a ledger turns up someday with details of where he traveled and who bought his paintings.

“He was a businessman,” she says. “And I’m sure that he kept accounts. He lodged at people’s houses and he paid them for his lodgings.”

Phillips was married twice and had children with both wives. Holdridge would love to see a painting of Ammi Phillips – or his family – if one exists.

“Perhaps he never did paint his own family. As they say, the shoemaker’s children have no shoes,” she says, “But perhaps somewhere there is such a painting, and wouldn’t that be wonderful to find?”

Lately Holdridge has worked with Melanie Marks, president of Connecticut House Histories. Holdridge has called this the “next generation” of Ammi Phillips scholarship.

“I don’t know if we’re the next generation,” Marks says. “But we like to think we’re doing her justice by continuing the work she and Larry did.”

Marks describes her job as a bit like detective work. She tracks down historical records for clients. She says her work usually covers houses. One client owned two Ammi Phillips paintings and tasked her with identifying the sitters, a man and a woman Phillips painted in Dover, New York, around 1836.

“That was the first time I’d ever heard of Ammi Phillips,” Marks says.

Marks dug into the paintings’ history and learned the two were brother and sister. And she learned there was actually a third in the set: the woman’s husband.  

Marks shows me three huge binders of her research: vital records, probate records and gravestone pictures of the three subjects. “You name it, we have it,” she says. She and Holdridge have also assembled more information on Phillips himself than was previously available.

Holdridge says she’s sure there are more Ammi Phillips paintings out there. So if you live in an old house in the Northeast, you might want to check all the nooks and crannies in your attic and basement.

And in the meantime, you can see “Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog” at an exhibit opening next month at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.