I find that all these things only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red. –Henri Matisse
Arresting, sublime and with timeless appeal, Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is one of Ammi Phillips’ “four children in red,” the most iconic and exalted group of American folk portraiture. With her large blue eyes steadfastly meeting the viewer’s gaze, the young sitter almost seems aware of the enduring and powerful impact her likeness possesses today. From record-breaking sales in the 1980s to the subject of modern literary fiction and appearance on a US postage stamp, examples from this group have captured the imagination of connoisseur and neophyte alike. Together, the group comprises three girls and a boy, the girls seated facing their right and unidentified (lot 1205, figs. 2, 4), while the boy sits in mirror image and is identified as Andrew Jackson Ten Broeck (1832-1850), painted in 1834 (fig. 3). While Phillips painted several other children in red clothing, these four works are the only that show the same combination of identical red dress, seated pose on stool, arms in parallel position and dog in foreground. Of the girls in this small group, the portrait offered here is the only one remaining in private hands and its sale offers a rare chance to acquire an undisputed masterpiece of American folk art.
Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog is a quintessentially American work of art. On one level, it illustrates the growing prosperity of a new country, one where large segments of its population were able to achieve a degree of material wealth previously only enjoyed by a select few. That Ammi Phillips was able to make a living in nineteenth-century rural New York and Connecticut by rendering possibly as many as two thousand likenesses during the course of his lifetime speaks to the relative affluence and aspirations of the populace. On another level, Phillips’ portraits are strikingly modern and their innovative abstraction affirms Phillips’ ability to transcend the constraints of his time. The astonishing beauty of these portraits is achieved largely through the use of modernist reductive principles, a theme explored by Stacy Hollander in her 2008 article comparing the works of Phillips and Mark Rothko. As argued by Hollander, Phillips’ art breaks with the norm of the day by ridding the canvas of “clutter” and creating large expanses of bold color that like the creations of Rothko have a mesmerizing effect upon the observer. Thus, in approach and in result, these masterful works by Phillips can be viewed as precursors of Abstract Expressionism, which dominated the American art scene over a century later (see Stacy C. Hollander, “The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips, Mark Rothko, Compositions in Pink, Green and Red,” Folk Art (Fall 2008), pp. 9-29).
In this vein, the portrait offered here comes closest to a minimalist ideal. The portraits of Ten Broeck (fig. 3) and Girl in a Red Dress (fig. 4) feature more background detail, the sitters wear red slippers and occupy a smaller percentage of the overall canvas. All these factors diminish the impact of the singular mass of red of the dress. In contrast, the portrait offered here and that in fig. 2 have proportionally larger dresses, black slippers and the dark backgrounds are punctuated only by the dog’s face and the corner of the stool. Finally, the portrait in fig. 2 has several additional details not seen in the portrait offered here, such as the cat in the girl’s arms, extra lace ruffles on the arms of the dress and a second layer of pantaloons. The absence of these details in the portrait offered here affords a purer geometric composition that enhances the interplay of dark, light and red. Vividly contrasting with the background and the hue of the sitter’s skin, the red of the dress may have also had symbolic meaning. As Hollander argues, the expense of vermillion during medieval times led to its use for the Virgin Mary’s clothing and an association of red with innocence may have directed Phillips’ choice of palette for these portraits of children (Hollander 2008), p. 10).
Within Phillips’ oeuvre, Girl in a Red Dress with a Dog epitomizes the artist’s Kent period, dated from 1829 to 1838 and characterized by highly stylized figures in a bold, vibrant palette. Phillips also relied on repeated devices and in addition to the three other portraits of children in red discussed above, several of Phillips’ likenesses from this period feature similarities in dress, pose and props. A number of details in the portrait offered here are also seen in Phillips’ portrait, Mrs. Mayer and Daughter (fig. 1). This double-portrait is the only other example of Phillips’ work that features a red dress of the same pattern as that seen in the four children in red. Furthermore, like the girl in the portrait in the current lot, the daughter has a three-strand coral necklace and both sitters hold similar leafy sprigs. Previously, they have been identified as oak, but as observed by David R. Allaway, the leaves resemble parsley stalks. They may also represent a flower like chrysanthemum, which has buds similar to those included in the sprigs depicted in these two portraits. No other Phillips portraits are known with the same bud, but similar leafy sprigs are seen on seven of his portraits of women, and one of a young girl, all dated to the 1830s or as late as c.1840 (email correspondence with David R. Allaway, 7 December 2018; Christie’s would like to thank David R. Allaway for sharing his research).
The pose, comprising a seated figure diagonally filling the canvas from upper right corner to lower left, with arms in parallel position on a similar diagonal, is seen in a c.1829 portrait of Mary Margaret Deuel, two c.1832 portraits of girls in pink and a c.1835 portrait of James Mairs Salisbury. While the others hold strawberries, one of the girls in pink, like the portrait offered here, has raised hands that finger the lowermost strand of the sitter’s coral necklace (Christie’s, 20 January 2017, lot 630; Sotheby’s, 21-22 January 2011, lot 303; Hollander 2008, op. cit., p. 22; Stacy C. Hollander and Howard P. Fertig, Revisiting Ammi Phillips: Fifty Years of American Portraiture (New York, 1994), plate XXXVIII). The latter three examples depict dresses of the same overall shape as those seen on the children in red portraits, but with triangular folds on the sleeves and more extensive white piping, contrast with the simplicity of the dresses of the children in red series. Distinguished by his brown oval patch on the forehead, the same beagle depicted in the children in red series appears in several additional portraits by Phillips executed in the 1830s. As argued by Leigh Rehner Jones and Shirley A. Mearns, it is likely that the dog was the artist’s pet. Obediently lying by the sitters’ feet, the dog may have encouraged Phillips’ young subjects to remain still while the artist rendered their likenesses (Leigh Rehner Jones and Shirley A. Mearns, “Ammi Phillips’s Portraits with Animals,” Hudson Valley Regional Review, vol. 4, no. 2 (September 1987), pp. 67-72).