One of the more prolific and important itinerant portrait painters of early 19th century America, Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) portrayed Americans in a self-taught manner that is now recognized for its distinct character. One of the numerous portrait painters traveling and working at this time, Phillips is important for the variety and individuality of his painting styles. Where Phillips' work was formerly attributed to at least five different artists, the marked differences in his painting style appear to have been the direct result of his changing location and influences. The five artists to whom Phillips' work was attributed, "Ammi Phillips," "Phillips," "A. Phillips," and the unidentified Kent and Border Limners were termed as such on the basis of both signed and partially signed works, as well as the location and provenance of portraits remaining in the families of their original sitters. Working the area defined by the borders of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, as well as in a few specific communities, the identities by which Phillips' portraits were formerly known fall into recognizable stylistic formats loosely paralleling his travels. His earliest portraits were completed circa 1811, and he continued to paint until the end of his life.
The pair of portraits illustrated here are painted in the characteristic format and mode of Phillips' "Border Period" portraits. These likenesses, almost all completed in the 1810s, are distinguished by their pale background, muted costume and soft pastel tones. The pendant portraits here also bear such standard Phillips props as matching fancy painted chairs and a book. The portraits probable date of execution, circa 1817, coincides approximately with Phillips work in the Duchess County, New York, towns of Pine Plains, Stanford, Northeast and Amenia. According to the 1820 census records, the sitters of the portraits illustrated here were living in nearby Clinton, New York, an easily traveled distance for the itinerant portrait artist.
During the first quarter of the 19th century, at least six Tobias Tellers, all members of the same extended family, lived in southern New York State: a Revolutionary War veteran (1750-1834), farmer (1772-1854), miller (b. 1823) and carpenter (b. 1831). At least two additional boys with this name were born to the extended family in 1792 and 1813. Westchester County Court records show that a Tobias Teller whose age would identify him as either the Revolutionary War veteran or the farmer, was in Common Pleas court in 1804 and 1809, first as a debtor and subsequently as a creditor (1). According to family tradition, the sitters portrayed in the pendant portrait pair illustrated here are Tobias Teller (1772-1854) and his wife, Caroline Sammis Teller.
The 1850 United States Federal Census lists a 77 year-old Tobias Teller as a farmer in Kinsbury, Washington County, New York (2). As the first census record in which individual household members were identified by name, this document provides the most concrete evidence of the sitter's family, whereabouts and property holdings. Not only would this Tobias Teller have been born in the right year to be the sitter portrayed here, but the identified members of this household concur with Teller family genealogy.
While recent scholarship has contended that Tobias Teller lived in Red Hook or Rhinebeck, New York, and that his wife's name was Paulina rather than Caroline, genealogical and census records suggest a different family structure with several relocations throughout southern New York (3). The 1850 Census shows Paulina Teller (age 39), Benjamin Franklin Teller (age 33, farmer), Elizabeth Teller (age 32), John D. Teller (age 3) living in the same household with Tobias. Non-family household members included Sarah Wood (age 40) and Matt McGinnis (age 30, farmer), both born in Ireland, and Thomas Jackson, a 33 year old free African-American farmer. The value of the property for which Tobias was the head of the household was $12,000, but the assessment is listed adjacent to Benjamin Franklin Teller's name, suggesting the taxes on the Teller farm may have been in the son's name.
The ages of the second and third generation Tellers listed in the 1850 Census raise several questions about family relationships within the Teller household, particularly regarding the identity of Mrs. Teller. While it has been suggested that Tobias' wife's name was Paulina rather than Caroline, at 39 years old, it is more likely that Paulina was Tobias's daughter (possibly named after her mother) or a second wife, rather than his wife portrayed here. Furthermore, with no feasibly corresponding female child in any of the earlier census records, it may also be that Elizabeth was Benjamin's wife, rather than another sister, and that she was the mother of 3 year old John D. Teller.
A comparison of this family structure with the Tobias Teller families of the 1810, 1820 and 1830 Census records (no Tobias Tellers listed in 1840) supports this and two additional conclusions. The first is that the sitters of the portraits illustrated here moved with some frequency, and the second is that an additional woman closer in age to Tobias who had died by 1850 was also in the household, as were various other children of that union. The 1810, 1820 and 1830 Census records respectively show a progressively appropriately aged Tobias Teller and family living first in Ward 5, New York County, then in Clinton, the home town of other Teller relatives, and finally in Red Hook. Teller Family genealogy indicates that Monroe and Margaret Teller were additional children of Tobias and his wife; while their presence is implied in these earlier records, they are no longer living in their father's home by 1850. The ages of the children still in the Teller household in 1850 suggest Tobias and his wife were probably married circa 1811, only a few years before these portraits were painted.
The Teller Family was related by marriage to several prominent early Westchester County families, including the Verplank, Vermilye, and Stoutenbergh. The earliest Teller in America, William, emigrated with the Dutch West India Company from Holland to New Amsterdam in the early 17th century; his family settled in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess Counties. Portions of the Teller Family's original property holdings now comprise the towns of Ossining and Croton, as well as Croton Point, formerly Teller's Point. Tobias Teller was the son of Margaret Stoutenbergh and John I. Teller, and his immediate family came from the Hyde Park and Rhinebeck vicinity.
Two additional Teller Family portraits were painted by Ammi Phillips circa 1835 and are Henry Teller and Jane Storm Teller. These paintings are presently in the collection of the National Gallery of Art and are illustrated and discussed in Chotner, et al., American Naive Paintings: National Gallery of Art, Washington (Washington, D.C., 1992), pp. 284-285, accession numbers 1953.5.30 and 1953.5.31. This portrait pair was purchased by Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch from descendants of the sitters still living in Duchess County. Jane Storm Teller holds a book inscribed C. Teller; Chotner suggests that while the inscription on the book may refer to an 1837 publication by C. W. Teller, it may also refer to the property of a relative (4). As such, the inscription on the book may be tangential evidence of Caroline Teller's identity, an approximate date of her death, and plausible reason for her husband's absence from the 1840 Census.
Paintings restored at the Conservation Laboratory, Lyman Allyn Museum, New London, CT, 1977 and appear to retain their original frames.
1 Westchester County Archives, Common Pleas, A-0311 (4) L 33 Abraham Merrett v. Tobias Teller, Bedford 1804. Judgement against Tobias Teller of Mount Pleasant in amount of #27-64; and Common Pleas, A-0311 (6) L 20 Tobias Teller v. Lewis Reynolds, White Plains 1809. Judgement for Tobias Teller in amount of $64.30
2 United States Federal Census, 1850, New York State, Washington County, roll 610, page 244.
3 Black, Mary. Federal Furniture and Decorative Arts at Boscobel (New York, 1981), p. 149, fig. 120. Also B.W. Bielenberg, Boscobel's Painting Collection, memorandum 6 April 1979.
4 Chotner, et al., American Naive Paintings: National Gallery of Art, Washington (Washington, D.C., 1992), p. 285.