FROM COLONIAL TIMES, and particularly during the first half of the 19th-Century, there has been a rich tradition of folk art in America. Painting was one of its most popular manifestations, and portraits were enthusiastically commissioned by the developing middle class. Doctors, lawyers and ministers, merchants and sea captains, the landed gentry--all were eager to have their likenesses made to provide proof of their status.
Consider, for example, the Ammi Phillips paired portraits of Dr. Isaac Everest and his wife, Sarah Cornwall (sold at Christie's in 1988). In it the doctor is shown holding an open book, a sign of literacy at the time and usually represented in portraits of doctors and lawyers. For a sea captain, a view of his ship was appropriate. In depictions of women and children, a family pet, a toy or a piece of jewelry might be included.
In those early days, portrait painters were in demand, and for the most part they were self-taught. These itinerant artists (or limners, as they came to be called) were a common sight in small New England towns, as well as in the Southern states and later in the Midwest. Artists were skilled at using oils, pastels and watercolor. The works were simple: Often, details were omitted, overall shape emphasized and perspective non-existent.