Portrait of a young man holding a copy of Milton's work

Accession Number

Portrait of a young man holding a copy of Milton's work

Ammi Phillips

Artist Nationality
American (North American)

Object Creation Date

Medium & Support
oil on canvas

36 in. x 30 in. x 2 3/4 in. ( 91.44 cm x 76.2 cm x 6.99 cm )

Credit Line
Gift of The Daniel and Harriet Fusfeld Folk Art Collection

Label copy
March 28, 2009
In contrast to professionally trained academic painters such as Rembrandt Peale—who was a contemporary of Phillips and whose portrait of Martha Washington is hung nearby—there also existed a broad tradition of itinerant self-taught painters in America, including Ammi Phillips. Phillips worked mainly in the towns and smaller cities of New England painting portraits commissioned by members of the newly prosperous middle class that emerged in the decades after the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). These self-taught artists often mimicked the work of professional painters but without their technical fluency and often years after styles and fashions had moved on, lending their paintings qualities that appeared old fashioned even in their own time.
Phillips’s style changed so dramatically during his career that his work was at one time ascribed to two different artists. By the 1820s, his technique had become more refined and naturalistic, showing a greater facility in the modeling of facial features, preserving the sitter’s likeness, and giving the subject a strong sense of individuality. Despite this attention to detail, the identity of the sitter in this portrait remains a mystery. The sitter was most likely a successful local landowner or merchant who wished to make known his material prosperity. The dark jacket, crisp white collar, tie, and stockpin point to the sitter’s affluence, while the volume of Milton is intended to speak to his sophistication and high level of education.

Subject matter
Phillips worked mainly in New England painting portraits commissioned by members of the wealthy new middle class that emerged after the American Revolution to celebrate their status and place in society.
“Portrait of a Man” illustrates Phillips attention to facial features, preserving the sitter’s likeness, while his fine clothing, and the copy of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” indicate his sophistication, education and affluence.

Physical Description
Portrait of a young man seated in a chair wearing a dark jacket, white shirt with high collar and neck tie with red stick pin; holding a book in his right hand. Plain grayish-brown background; gold frame.

Primary Object Classification

Primary Object Type

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chairs (furniture forms)
figures (representations)
folk art (traditional art)
men (male humans)

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