Asa Ames

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Asa Ames (1823–1851) was an American sculptor from Erie County, New York. While most details concerning his life remain a mystery, recent research has established Ames as a significant figure in American folk art. Within his brief career from 1847 to his death in 1851, Ames created a series of three-dimensional portraits of family members, neighbors, and friends. His woodcarvings of children and young adults have garnered the most attention. Fourteen woodcarvings have been attributed to Ames. His works are currently at the following institutions: the American Folk Art Museum, the New York State Historical Association, the Huntington Art Museum, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Boulder History Museum, and the Wadsworth Atheneum.


Asa Ames was born on December 28, 1823, in Evans, New York, some twenty miles south of Buffalo. His parents, John Ames (1791–1830) and Susan Gates Ames, had recently moved there from Worcester County, Massachusetts, probably in anticipation of the greater economic opportunity to come with the opening of the Erie Canal, which followed in 1825. After the death of John Ames in 1830, when Asa was seven, his mother remarried in 1842, to Elias Babcock, but was to be widowed a second time two years later. Asa was the fourth of five children, with his siblings and their families playing an important part in his career; at least four of Ames's known oeuvre of 13 works portray family members. Others portray neighbors in Evans, some of whom Ames lived with for a time. His work as a sculptor is therefore deeply rooted in his kinship network and local community, which was in tension with other aspects of his career which point to the rising tide of modernity, notably his interest in phrenology (see below).

Ames died in 1851, probably of tuberculosis, with his tombstone giving his final age as "27 years, 7 months, and 7 days."[1] His name would not be recovered by art historians until 1977, when Jack T. Ericson discovered it in the Evans census of 1850; publication followed five years later in 1982, establishing the basis for subsequent scholarship.[2] Since then Asa Ames has assumed an eminent place in the history of American art as a leading folk sculptor of the 19th century.

Ames's short life is sparely documented. The dates of his birth and death are known by his tombstone, other details (including his occupation, described as "sculpturing") by a local census of 1850, with the gaps in the record skilfully reconstructed by art historians on the basis of 13 works (signed and unsigned, the latter attributions grounded on style and provenance) and the web of connections they have revealed.[3][4] Additionally, descendants of Asa Ames have proved helpful to historians by making accessible family records, which show that Ames was married to a woman named Emma (probably Emma Hurd of the Marvin household, where Ames was resident at the time of the 1850 census) shortly before his death.[5] Even more significantly, the Ames family has helped identify subjects of the sculptors' portraits.


Despite the fact that little is known about the Ames’s artistic formation, his skill "suggests that he served an apprenticeship" during his youth, "although it is not clear in what profession."[6] Ames’s medium of wood distinguished him from his contemporaries. In the nineteenth century, painting was understood as the common medium for portraiture. In contrast, woodcarving was employed in the more humble production of advertising figures and shipcarvings. Ames’s distinctiveness lies in his ability to construct such emotionally commanding portraitures out of this vernacular medium.

Scholars have debated whether Ames’ work should be understood as a direct descendant of the shipcarving genre, or rather, as part of the classical tradition of sculpture. It should be noted that typical shipcarving figureheads have a forward thrust, which is absent from Ames’ work. Additionally, with the exception of one piece, Ames’s works have “no flowing neoclassical draperies” – another characteristic of the shipcarving tradition.[7] To some extent, Ames’s self-described occupation of “sculpturing” on the United States census of 1850 offers a glimpse into the artist’s self-perception. Despite the fact that “sculpturing” was usually reserved to describe works of stone or metal, Ames employed it freely in the census.[8] He professed his work to be one of artistic merit.


Ames dedicated most of his career to carving likenesses of his relatives and friends. His portraits reveal an attentive eye to the particular – to the individual characteristics of each of his subjects, which he portrayed in a straightforward fashion. Characteristic of Ames’ portraits are “broad foreheads and uncompromising eyes,” which Ames “carved deeply under heavy brows, the eyelashes painted as a series of dots.”[9] In 1847 Ames carved frontal busts of his sister’s three children: Millard F., Maria, and Adelaide. Afterwards, while living with Dr. Thomas Armstrong later that year, he set out to carve a likeness of Dr. Thomas Armstrong’ daughter – Amanda Clayanna. What resulted is a standing figure of the young girl, “leaning against a draped tablet in slight contrapposto.”[10] From 1847 to 1851, Ames carved three portraits of adults – two men and one woman. Scholars have recently suggested that this series of portraits may represent portraits of Ames’ two brothers and sister.

In 1849 Ames crafted two carvings of children – a full-figured statue of a young girl and a Naked Child. The young girl has been identified as Susan Ames, the daughter of Ames’s brother, Henry. Naked Child probably represents a likeness of the son of Dr. Harvey B. Marvin – LaRay Marvin. At the time this sculpture was carved, Ames was living with the family; young LaRay was seven months old.

Seated Female Figure with Lamb and Cup was the last carving to be dated by Ames in April 1850 - a little more than a year before his death. Widely understood as a memorial to two young sisters, Sarah Reliance and Ann Augusta Ayer, Ames inscribed in wood their death from cholera in 1849, at the ages of three and one, respectively.

Phrenological head[edit]

Ames’s 1850 phreonological bust, currently in the American Folk Art Museum’s collection, is perhaps the artist's most unusual work. Since its introduction at the Brooklyn Museum’s 1948 exhibition “Popular Art in America,” the bust has testified both to the profound impact of phrenology on the 19th-century American psyche and to Ames’s increasingly sophisticated craft.

At the height of its influence, phrenology had become a visible practice of both urban and rural landscapes. Individual operators, inspired by the commercial success of the Fowler brothers, offered "phrenological observations" to the public. This increase in interest brought about the distribution of phrenological tools; plaster casts, measuring devices, charts, and to some extent, modeled phrenological heads, became increasingly common.

While it is not known why exactly Ames’s carved this phrenological study, some have suggested that Dr. Marvin, the physician that Ames was living with at the time, fostered his interest in "alternative" medicine. Marvin, who explored remedies such as hydrotherapy and magnet therapy, perhaps inspired Ames's study of phrenology. Additionally, given the fact that Ames soon fell ill to tuberculosis, he might have been seeking treatment from Dr. Marvin.[11]


Ames's sculptures made their debut at the Newark Museum's 1931 exhibition "American Folk Sculptures: The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsmen." However, the exhibit incorrectly identified their creator to be Alexander Ames, not Asa Ames.[12] Asa Ames finally earned his own solo exhibition in 2008. From April to September, The American Folk Art Museum launched the show "Asa Ames: Occupational Sculpturing." The exhibition featured eight of his works, as well as a newly discovered daguerrotype of the artist.[13]

List of known works[edit]

  • Millard F. Dewey - 1847 - private collection - Millard F. Dewey was the artist’s nephew. Inscription: Jan. 1847/ A. Ames
  • Maria Dewey - 1847–present location unknown, Maria Dewey was the artist’s niece. This carving was exhibited in “American Folk Sculpture: the Work of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Craftsmen,” at the Newark Museum in 1932. Inscription said to be signed by Ames and dated 1847.
  • Adelaide Dewey - 1847 - Fitchburg Art Museum, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, gift of Milton Cushing, 1930; destroyed in a fire in 1933. Inscription said to be inscribed by Ames with a location of Albany and dated 1847.
  • Amanda Clayanna Armstrong - 1847 - Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia. Family tradition has it that the artist was living with the family of Dr. Thomas and Joanna (Terry) Armstrong when he made this carving. Inscription: AMANDA C/ ARMSTRONG/ BORN MAY/ 26/ 1844/ BY A. AMES/ NOW 1847;
  • Bust of a Young Man - 1847- New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, gift of Stephan Clark. Inscription: A. Ames March 1847
  • Bust of a Young Man - c. 1847–1851 - Huntington Art Museum, Huntington, West Virginia. This may be a self-portrait or a portrait of John T. Ames, the artist’s brother. The Huntington Museum acquired the carving from an auction house in Iowa near the town where John Ames and Asa’s widow, Emma, are buried.
  • Bust of a Woman - c. 1847–1851 - collection of the Regis Corporation
  • Bust of a Young Woman - c. 1847–1851 - Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia
  • Girl Holding a Book - c. 1847–1851 - private collection - Inscription: a. Ames
  • Susan Ames Hogue - 1849 - “Boulder History Museum,[permanent dead link]” gift of Mrs. Arch Hogue - Susan Ames Hogue was the artist's niece - Inscription: CARV'D Dec., 1849, A. AME-
  • Hand Holding Book - c. 1847–1951 - collection of John T. Ames, Austin, Texas
  • Naked Child - 1849 - private collection - Inscription: By A. Ames, Evans, N.Y., June 1849
  • Memorial for Sarah Reliance Ayer and Ann Augusta Ayer - 1850 - Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut - Inscription: By A. Ames. Carved APR 1850
  • Phrenological Head - c. 1850 - American Folk Art Museum, bequest of Jeanette Virgin



  1. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-03-31. Retrieved 2014-03-26.
  2. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2014-06-30.
  3. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2014-06-30.
  4. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-03-31. Retrieved 2014-03-26.
  5. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-03-31. Retrieved 2014-03-26.
  6. ^ Stacy C. Hollander, "Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing." New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2008, 2.
  7. ^ Stacy C. Hollander, “Asa Ames: New Discoveries,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 174, no. 2 (August 2008)
  8. ^ Stacy C. Hollander, “Asa Ames: New Discoveries,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 174, no. 2 (August 2008)
  9. ^ Stacy C. Hollander, “Asa Ames and the Art of Phrenology,” The Clarion, vol. 15, no. 3 (summer 1989), 32
  10. ^ Stacy C. Hollander, “Asa Ames: New Discoveries,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 174, no. 2 (August 2008)
  11. ^ Stacy C. Hollander, "Asa Ames," Folk Art, vol. 30, no. 2 (Summer 2005), 55
  12. ^ Jack T. Ericson,“Asa Ames, sculptor." The Magazine Antiques, vol. 122, no. 3 (September 1982): 522.
  13. ^ Roberta Smith, "Filling in the Contours of a Surprising Golden Age," The New York Times, April 25, 2008

External links[edit]