Asa Ames: New Discoveries

Seated Figure with Lamb and Cup (Fig. 14) is the latest dated carving by Ames that is known and was completed the year before his death. It was made for the Ayers, neighbors of Ames’s sister Emeline, and is believed to memorialize two sisters, Sarah Reliance and Ann Augusta Ayer, who died in 1849 at the ages of three and one respectively. The imagery of a child with a lamb is not uncommon in the marble statuary associated with the rural cemetery movement. Tributes to children were especially popular, and signified a life ended in a state of total innocence, close to nature and to God. Rather than representing the two girls, the sculpture may instead depict John the Baptist as a child, one arm holding the lamb of God, a baptism bowl elevated in the other.

The revelation of the rare daguerreotype portrait of Asa Ames, and the new research that has come to light over the past few years, urge a reexamination of the artist’s oeuvre. Tentative identifications of the carvings can be offered on the basis of their resemblance to the artist, existing family photographs, the migration paths of the families he portrayed, and the location where the carvings have since been found. The daguerreotype shows a portrait of the artist as a young man. He was probably aware of his own impending death, yet assumed control of his legacy by carefully constructing a fascinating and evocative image for future generations to ponder.

The exhibition Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing is on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City through September 14.

1 When Scovills in Waterbury, Connecticut, incorporated in 1850, it was renamed Scovill Manufacturing Company and changed its mark to “Scovill Mf’g. Co.”
2 The daguerreotype descended to John T. Ames of Austin, Texas. Its existence came to the author’s attention through an e-mail correspondence with his cousin Carol Baumeister shortly before the opening of the exhibition Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing. I am profoundly grateful to John T. Ames and his sister Linda Ames McDonough for their generosity in sharing the daguerreotype and additional family photographs and material.
3 I am grateful to Brian Wallis, the chief curator at the International Center for Photography, New York City, for his insights about this image and the daguerreotype process.
4 Joel Shew, Consumption: Its Prevention and Cure by the Water-Treatment (New York, 1851). In 1987 Annette Frost, the former town historian of Evans, shared diary entries written by Elliott Stewart that detailed conversations with Dr. Harvey B. Marvin on various topics including mesmerism, hydropathy, and other therapies and ideas. The entries described the efforts of a local minister to turn pubic opinion against Marvin, which resulted ultimately in Marvin and his family relocating to Michigan.
5 The significance of the triangle as a symbol of the Sons of Temperance was explicated by Laurel Gable of the Association for Gravestone Studies in an e-mail to me. Images of Ames’s gravestone were provided by Kevin Enser in an e-mail dated December 6, 2007. Additional images of the inscription and a transcription of the lines of verse that appear on the gravestone were provided by Carol Baumeister, e-mail to author, March 5, 2008.
6 Jack T. Ericson, “Asa Ames, sculptor,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 122, no. 3 (September 1982), pp. 522–529. Ericson was the first to correctly identify Asa Ames and to present a body of work for comparison and discussion. At least one carving by Ames had been known since 1931, when Maria Dewey was included in the exhibition American Folk Sculpture: The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsmen at the Newark Museum in New Jersey, but the artist was inaccurately named Alexander Ames based on the pencil inscription that appears on the bottom of the carving. Following the Newark Museum exhibition, the location of this carving was unknown for many years. It was rediscovered in recent years by the Connecticut dealer Marguerite Riordan before it passed into the current private collection.
7 Laura Lee’s research is detailed in “Carved by Asa Ames: A Chance Discovery,” Folk Art: Magazine of the American Folk Art Museum,vol. 30, no. 2 (Summer 2005), pp. 52–56.
8 Biographical information about John Trowbridge Ames and the role he and his family played in the formation of Traer, Iowa, is detailed in Janette Stevenson Murray, They Came to North Tama, 2nd ed. (Graphic Publishing Company, Lake Mills, Iowa, 1973). I am indebted to Diana Caloud for bringing this publication to my attention and for providing additional information about the Ames family in Iowa.
9 Emma Ames’s obituary was published in the Traer (Iowa) Star Clipper, April 28, 1893.
10 According to the Huntington Museum of Art’s records, the bust was auctioned at the Gene Harris Antiques Auction Center, Marshalltown, Iowa, in 1977.
11 The inscription on Naked Child was the key to Ericson’s identification of Ames as the carver. It also pinpoints the date of the daguerreotype between 1849 and 1851 because the sculpture appears (reversed) in the image.
12 LaRay Marvin’s house in Muskegon, Michigan, still stands and is a highlight on a walking tour sponsored by the Ostrich Plume in Muskegon. I am indebted to Florence Bright for providing the image of LaRay Marvin.
13 The association between the Phrenological Head and Harvey B. Marvin is discussed in Stacy C. Hollander, “Asa Ames and the Art of Phrenology,” Clarion, vol. 14, no. 3 (Summer 1989), pp. 28–35.
14 Frank Maresca first noted Ames’s use of the head of a screw to create the navel on Naked Child.
15 Ralph Sessions, The Shipcarvers’ Art: Figureheads and Cigar-store Indians in Nineteenth-century America (Prince-ton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2005), includes an interesting discussion of the term “sculpture” and its implications in the language of the nineteenth century, which sheds new light on the distinctions made by critics and the artists themselves between occupational art-making and the so-called fine arts.
16 United States Federal Census, 1860, New York, Erie County, Evans. Charles E. Gates was twenty-one years old and a recent immigrant to Evans from Württemberg, Germany.
17 The ecclesiastical nature of this carving was suggested by Maria Ann Conelli, the director of the American Folk Art Museum and a Renaissance scholar.

STACY C. HOLLANDER is the senior curator and director of exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and organized the current exhibition of sculpture by Asa Ames.

Thank you for signing up.

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

» View All