November 8, 2009

Two Paintings

Ammi Phillips, Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, ca. 1830-1835, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, John, Duke of Saxony, ca. 1537, oil on wood, 25 x 17 in.

Sometimes while wandering through museums, as I did this past week, I am struck by surprising affinities I had never noticed. At the American Folk Art Museum, where I went to see the Thomas Chambers show (more on that in a later post), I was very happy to be able to have a long look at the Girl in Red Dress by Ammi Phillips, America's greatest itinerant portrait painter; this painting is the best of his work that I've seen. The face of the little girl is painted with softness and subtlety; the sense of volume is minimal, yet full of life. The little dog has the kind, melting look in its eye that all dog lovers know. These delicate hints at volume are set against a strong dark background and the crisp outline and color of the red dress, which heighten a powerful sense of two dimensional design. The carefully rendered outlines of the dress allude to its mass; although painted flatly, we feel its weight.

The next day, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had a treasure trove of special exhibitions going on. I always visit a few of the European painting galleries while there: the early Renaissance in Italy and in Northern Europe, where I check in on my favorite panel paintings. When I saw the Cranach portrait, with its dominant triangle of black costume against a red ground, I immediately thought of the Phillips portrait, in which the color of ground and clothing is reversed. Both paintings have only small amounts of modeling of form in the faces (though the Cranach has stronger outlines) with flat rendering of clothing; in both, the drama of the solid color adds to the power of the painting.

Italian painters of the early Renaissance are often called "primitives", and though Cranach is not of that time, his work has much of their characteristics: form that is dominated by line, with a minimal development of volume, and strongly decorative compositions. This too describes the work of American primitive, or naive, painters such as Phillips. Although one is the image of a powerful man and the other of a little girl, across the centuries these works speak of similar concerns and approaches to the portrait.


  1. what a rich juxtaposition / meditation. thanks for it.

  2. The Renaissance galleries at the Met are my favorite as well! What a delightful painting the Girl in the Red Dress is.