Asa Ames: New Discoveries

In December 1849 Ames made a full-length portrait of his young niece Susan Ames (Fig. 3). The child, then almost two years old, was the only offspring of the artist’s brother Henry Gates Ames (c. 1821–after 1880) to be born in Evans. The family later moved to Illinois and then to Texas, where Henry was a tanner and shoemaker. The figure, which is inscribed with the artist’s name, was given to the Boulder History Museum in Colorado in 1963 and described on the deed of gift as “Wood carving of mother-in-law of Mrs. Hogue—carved by her uncle in 1849—when she was 3 years old. Presented by her daughter-in-law Mrs. Arch Hogue.” The rediscovery of this figure by Laura Lee, the former registrar and collections manager at the museum, led to a rich vein of information about Ames and his family that has provided the basis for further investigation.7
mes had two brothers, John and Henry, and a sister, Emeline (). His parents, John Ames (c. 1791–c. 1830) and Susan Gates Ames, moved from Massachusetts to Evans prior to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 with their two older children in tow; Henry and Asa were born in Evans. John Ames died before 1830, when Asa was around seven; Susan remarried in 1842, to Elias Babcock (1779–1844), and was widowed again two years later. Asa Ames himself was married six months before his death, though little is known about his wife, Emma (1830–1893).

Of the four Ames siblings, John led the most adventurous life, plying the canal for a few years, traveling to Missouri and Wisconsin, where he worked as a teacher and married, and then moving to California in a covered wagon during the gold rush years (see Fig. 7). The same wagon later carried his growing family, including his mother and Asa’s widow, to the pioneer community of Traer, Tama County, Iowa, where John became a highly successful landowner and breeder of livestock. Susan died in 1865, and hers was the first interment in a small cemetery set among the seventy acres of larch trees that John Ames planted on his property.8 Emma died in 1893, having spent most of her life in the household of her brother-in-law.9
Bust of a Young Man may be a portrait of Asa’s brother John (Fig. 1). It shows a strong family resemblance to the daguerreotype image of the sculptor and an even stronger resemblance to John’s son Asa Lee Ames, who was photographed at about the same age, in his mid- to late twenties (see Fig. 5). This is the only carving confidently attributed to Ames that rests on a draped pedestal. The convention, characteristic of the shipcarving arts, may be Ames’s testament to his brother’s years working on the Erie Canal. Further supporting this identification is the fact that the sculpture was auctioned in Iowa in 1977.10

In June 1849 Ames carved Naked Child (Fig. 10).11 In August the following year he was living in the household of Dr. Marvin, whose son LaRay was seven months old at the time Naked Child was carved and may be its subject. A photograph of him in middle age shows a square face with shadowed eyes and a short straight nose similar to the features seen in the sculpture (Fig. 11).12 Like his father, LaRay became a prominent homeopath. He trained at Hahnemann Medical College in Chicago and practiced in Muskegon, Michigan, where the family moved after his father’s plan to open a hydropathy clinic in Evans was received with hostility. It is likely that Ames also carved the Phrenological Head while he was living with the Marvins (Fig. 8). Entries in a journal kept by a local lawyer, Elliott W. Stewart (1817–1894), discuss the doctor’s interest in various esoteric medical and philosophical topics and describe attending phrenological lectures in Buffalo.13

Two years before Naked Child, in 1847, Ames carved a grave and powerful portrait of a young man in a black suit who bears a remarkable resemblance to the artist himself, as revealed in the daguerreotype (Fig. 13). The resemblance suggests it may be a self-portrait, but it is more likely a portrait of one of Ames’s brothers. The star-shaped studs along the placket of the shirtfront are actually decorative tacks (akin to the screw he used for the navel of the Naked Child),14 and on the bottom are a beautifully incised inscription with decorative flourishes and the date March 1847. The same year Ames also carved portraits of three children: Adelaide (now destroyed), Maria (Fig. 12), and Millard F. Dewey (1845–1916) (private collection). Lee’s research found that the three children were in fact the artist’s nieces and nephew, the children of his sister Emeline, who had married Abner Dewey (1809–1893) in 1834. An additional undated carving of an imposing and austere woman in a black dress is stylistically similar to the young man of Figure 13 and has the same substantial corporeal quality (Fig. 9). Because Ames portrayed family members including his sister’s three children around this time, it is logical to assume the carving might depict Emeline herself, who would have been around thirty-four years old in 1847 and had already given birth to four children (one had died young). There is a resemblance between this carving and the one of Maria Dewey, but the facial features are markedly different from those of the busts that presumably depict the artist’s other siblings. Rather than the full voluptuous mouths and snub noses of the young men, the woman has a tight small mouth with deep lines etched from her nose to the corners of her lips. Her nose is more aquiline than pudgy and her aspect is severe. A photograph of Susan Ames Babcock as an older woman descended in the John Trowbridge Ames family and suggests a rather simple reason for the disparity in looks between Emeline and her brothers: she took after her mother (Fig. 4).

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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