Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Eyes Have It

On my recent trip to Dallas to attend the opening of the Fenimore Art Museum's Thaw Collection of American Indian Art at the Dallas Museum of Art, I came across this curious painting at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. It struck me as another fine example of an itinerant folk artist's penchant for depicting sitters as they were, rather than as an idealized version of themselves.

Ammi Phillips was a prolific painter in the valleys and towns of eastern New York State and western New England in the first half of the nineteenth century. He is well known for employing stock poses in order to speed up production of his portraits. But he did so with such fluid and graceful brushwork that the paintings are elegant and refined even in their sameness. And his sitters didn't seem to mind that they looked like so many others' portraits that they must have seen in their villages.

Yet despite this sameness, Phillips often captured something unique to each sitter. In this case, it was an obvious crossed eye. This young girl and her parents must not have seen this condition as a major flaw, for by all indications they accepted this finished portrait and it descended in the girl's family.

It's entirely possible that some might look at this painting, not having seen Phillips' work before, and attribute the crossed eye to a lack of painting skill. That view is problematic for many reasons, chief among them is this: the cat's eyes are perfect.

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