One January morning a couple of years ago, I tuned in to WSHU public radio. An episode of Davis Dunavin’s Off the Path from New York to Boston had just started, and the first words I heard were, “heartbreakingly lovely,” spoken by Emelie Gevalt, curator of the American Folk Art Museum. Gevalt was describing Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog (1830-1835) by the itinerant folk artist, Ammi Phillips.
“I really think it’s the face that draws us in and holds us there,” Gevalt continued. “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.”
This reminded of my own two daughters, and I could hardly wait to see the portrait for myself. I immediately googled the artist, whom I’d never heard of, and found the painting — and so many more portraits. As the podcast explained, we now know, thanks to collector Barbara Holdridge, that Ammi Phillips, born in Colebrook, CT, was the most prolific folk artist in American history.
Ammi’s portraits reflect a time of upheaval in our country — between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Most northern states were gradually abolishing slavery, and a radical new idea, universal suffrage, was about to be voiced for the first time. The earliest photographs, called daguerreotypes, were gaining popularity, but often the only image ever taken of a person in their lifetime was a painted portrait — if you were lucky enough to afford one.
These portraits captivated my imagination. Their clothing, the possessions they held, and most of all, their eyes. Eyes that witnessed an America convulsing with change — about to tear itself apart. I felt like I recognized something in their expressions. As Mark Twain once said, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”