Ammi Phillips (1788–1865) was an itinerant portrait painter working his way across Connecticut, Massachusetts, and the state of New York in those earliest days of colonial New England. Though his work spans five decades, not much is known about him. He was probably self-taught, and chose to make a life as an artist for hire in communities where any kind of painting or even decorative object would have been a luxury item. Itinerant paints continually traveled or moved on in search of new clients. Phillips’ oeuvre was only revived when the folk art genre began to be taken more seriously by art historians, curators, and collectors. This is a painter who could take his place beside any serious artist.
Phillips’ portrait of Harriet Leavens, now hanging in the Harvard Art Museums, is a favorite work of mine at the museum. Painted when Harriet was just thirteen, and fifteen years before her death, the painting is simply done with all the elements perfectly assembled. Black is used as a color to focus and ground the composition. We see Harriet standing pertly on a dark floor with her small slipper sticking out from beneath her dress. The umbrella or parasol in her hand points like a dark, perpendicular arrow toward that same floor. Her dress, almost salmon in tone, becomes a smooth, tubular sculpture of cloth covering her body. She stands, almost incorporeal, except for the slight breasts protruding at the bodice. Her sense of being almost weightless makes the downward press of the black parasol take on some additional meaning. It might even be a serious reminder of mortality as it directs the eye of the viewer toward earth and perhaps even the grave.
Meanwhile, Harriet Leavens gazes directly out at us as she offers a small smile from her bright lips. The painting is calm, steady in a certain way, simplistic but also full of contradiction. The bright red at the base of the purse as well as the red necklace and ring almost seem to put words in Harriet’s mouth. I imagine she might be saying: “I am not much but at least I have this—my pretty purse full of coins and comb, and my necklace and this ring, all these were given to me by my father. He might be powerful, but I am still me, a separate person in my own right. I have my own eyes to see, and I’m looking out of this picture into a time when I will be no more.”
I enjoy images that make me feel like a witness, and this one does just that. Harriet Leavens has an erect quality and a certain gaze. We don’t know much about her, but we have her likeness, at least as Phillips recorded it, and this might say as much about the artist as it says about the subject. The painting’s minimalism and sheer clarity communicate something rather profound about a single human life.
Harriet Leavens (1802–1830) by Ammi Phillips, Harvard Art Museums