Asa Ames: New Discoveries

This group is unified by more than just the year in which they were carved: each portrait is cut off straight across the bottom in a distinctive fashion that is virtually unique in this genre of nineteenth-century American sculpture. This treatment creates the unsettling effect of intensifying the realism of the portrait, suggesting an incompleteness or missing aspect of a full figure. Ames’s use of this strategy, which can be seen in Renaissance sculpture, particularly that of Florence, suggests that he aspired to introduce sculpture conventions typically used in marble into the more humble and vernacular medium of wood. It is difficult to trace how Ames may have become conversant with such art historical traditions, which nevertheless inform such carvings as Amanda Clayanna Armstrong (Fig. 15), Naked Child, and the family portraits of 1847.

Previously Ames’s work has been considered with-in the genre of shipcarving, yet there is little of that aesthetic evident in his work. There is none of the forward thrust typical of figureheads, and, with one exception, no flowing neoclassical draperies. In the United States census of 1850 Ames listed his occupation as “sculpturing,” a term that implies he considered himself a fine artist in a plastic medium. In the parlance of the nineteenth century, the term was hierarchical and usually reserved for sculpting in stone or metal, rather than making objects within the sphere of an occupational trade. Talented artists working in wood might have served apprenticeships of several years duration and even have achieved critical acclaim for the skill and beauty of their carvings. But the praise was usually tempered by such qualifying descriptions as “artist in wood.”15 Only one other individual in nineteenth-century censuses for Evans used a similar term. In 1860 Charles E. Gates noted his occupation as “sculpture” while he was living in the household of William Mathewson (Matteson), a master marble finisher from Rutland, Vermont, and the only stonecutter in the area.16

Whether he trained as a carver in wood or in stone, Ames responded in his own work to the classically inspired sculpture that was promulgated in the fine arts and popularized in the era of the rural cemetery movement, which was instigated in 1831 by the establishment of Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Conceived as picturesque rambles combining art, meditation, and nature, the new cemeteries were idyllic rural havens from the sordidness of towns and cities. Marble statuary, especially tributes to children, punctuated the winding paths and inspired moral reflection, stirring the emotions of the visitor contemplating the melancholy beauty of death. Commissions for marble sculptures increased dramatically, as did opportunities for the public to view them.

Ames’s familiarity with classical conventions is evident in Amanda Clayanna Armstrong, which depicts the subject leaning against a draped tablet in a slight contrapposto (Fig. 15). Reinforcing an association with stone carving and memorial portraits is the lengthy inscription skillfully incised into the tablet in a style of lettering and organization that relates closely to gravestone carving. Ames probably did not have firsthand knowledge of sculpture from antiquity and the Renaissance, but he was no doubt aware of their conventions through their interpretations in the shipcarving arts and the works of early American marble sculptors such as Horatio Greenough (1805–1852). In 1831 Greenough’s composition known as The Chanting Cherubs, based on a detail of the Madonna del Baldacchino by Raphael (1483–1520), began a tour of major cities in the United States to enthusiastic reception. In 1847 The Greek Slave, a marble statue by Hiram Powers (1805–1873), was sent on a grand tour as well. The sculpture became wildly popular and small-scale replicas proliferated under glass domes in houses across the country.

One cannot view Ames’s Naked Child or the portraits of Maria and Millard Dewey without being reminded of the work of the Florentine sculptor Desiderio da Settignano, who has been credited with virtually inventing the genre of marble carvings of children who appear natural and spontaneous. Naked Child in particular could not have been conceived without some familiarity with Desiderio’s full-length depictions of the Christ Child and John the Baptist as a child (see Fig. 16).17 The round belly and folds of flesh capture the precious chubbiness of a loved baby, and the outstretched hands and three-quarter-turn pose are reminiscent of the animated true-to-childhood innocence that Desiderio introduced.

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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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