Asa Ames: New Discoveries

Stacy C. Hollander Art

The Magazine ANTIQUES | August 2009

Sometime between 1849 and his death in 1851 a young carver named Asa Ames in Evans, Erie County, New York, decided to have his picture taken (Fig. 2). He opted for the daguerreotype process rather than a painted portrait, and he purchased a quarter-plate size though the composition he envisioned was complex for the small format. The plate itself is marked “scovills” for the firm that manufactured the coated copper plates used in the daguerreotype process from about 1839 to 1850, but there is no indication of the identity of the photographer or the studio where it was made.1 The carefully arranged image is at once occupational and autobiographical in nature, and there is a strangeness to the construct that intimates levels of meaning we can only guess at today. The precious cased plate descended in the family of Asa’s brother John Trowbridge Ames, and until recently, when the American Folk Art Museum in New York City opened the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work, was unknown outside that line of the family.2 

The daguerreotype has degraded to a coppery blue around the edges. Ames is shown sitting at the far left with a block of wood held between his knees. He is sculpting with a mallet and chisel, and a face is just beginning to emerge from the surrounding wood, a face eerily like his own: the artist carving a self-portrait. Behind him leans a violoncello, and next to him, atop the block of wood, stands a full-length carving of a naked child, modestly swathed with an actual scarf and holding what appears to be a tuning fork in his chubby hand. To the right of the child are two previously unknown busts that may have been made by Ames, each with a draped cloth carved around the bottom, that appear to float on a carpet of figured cloth suspended over the head of an unidentified man in the lower right corner. Over their heads hovers a disembodied hand holding a book, a carving that descended with the daguerreotype (Fig. 6). In the bust of the young woman, the subject has long, glossy, wavy black hair that is unlike the treatment of hair in any of the known carvings by Ames, thus provoking the question whether the bust had a wig, or even whether it is a real person posed as a carving. The man in the lower right corner gazes up at the artist with an enigmatic expression on his aquiline face; his body is cut off by the limits of the metal plate. The entire composition suggests a montage of separate images that have been assembled into a single frame, but it is more likely that the image was carefully staged to create the mysterious effects.3

When this image was taken, the photographic medium was just beginning to be exploited as a tool for capturing the wispy ether of the spirit world. It was at this moment that the Fox sisters—Catherine or Kate (1836–1892), Leah (1814–1891), and Margaret or Maggie (1833–1892)—were gaining celebrity in Rochester, New York, and beyond for their purported communion with this world through rappings and knockings, and it can be conjectured that Ames himself was open-minded about such alternative ideas and events. In 1850 he was living in the household of Dr. Harvey B. Marvin (1806–1870), a medical practitioner and homeopath who was planning to open a water-cure clinic in Evans. That same year the Fowler brothers, major proponents of phrenology and radical social reforms, had published a slim volume extolling the power of hydropathy to cure and prevent consumption, a death sentence in the days before the discovery of antibiotics.4 Ames himself died of consumption soon after at the age of twenty-seven years, seven months, and seven days. It is possible that in sitting for the daguerreotype he was consciously composing an image to leave for posterity, one that established his stature as an artist and included details of a personal moment, the significance of which is now lost to time. His gravestone in Evans’s Pioneer Cemetery bears the triangular symbol of the fraternal organization Sons of Temperance, which serendipitously had funeral benefits, and an inscription that ends with lines from a hymn by Isaac Watts (1674–1748) from Psalm 90:

Death, like an overflowing stream,
Sweeps us away; our life’s a dream,
An empty tale, a morning flower,
Cut down and withered in an hour.5

In 1982 Jack T. Ericson identified twelve carvings signed by or attributed to Ames in his seminal article on him in The Magazine Antiques.6 Based on family remembrances of Ames’s identified subjects, Ericson concluded that the artist worked within a close network of relatives, friends, and neighbors, though the relationships were not entirely understood at the time. Ames’s circle has grown closer and more intimate as research has revealed more about the artist, his family, and the people he captured so beautifully and tellingly in his carvings.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).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.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 public 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 email to me. Images of Ames’s gravestone were provided by Kevin Enser in an email 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, email 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 (Princeton 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.