Ezra Ames was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1768, and grew up in what is now Wayland, Massachusetts. However, he ultimately became closely associated with the city of Albany, New York, where he dominated portrait painting during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Ames began his career in his home state; by 1790 he was living in Worcester, accepting nearly any job that came his way. Besides the occasional miniature portrait, his commissions included the painting, lettering, or gilding of carriages, fire buckets, clock faces, fences, mirror frames, drums, sun blinds, ear trumpets, and various articles of furniture. Little of this early work has been identified, however.
By 1793, Ames had left Worcester for Albany, joining family members who had moved west several years earlier. There he took on the same variety of odd jobs, dealing additionally in artists' materials on the side. He found, though, that there was little artistic competition in the growing town (which became the state capital in 1796), and he gradually eliminated some of his craftwork as portrait commissions became more numerous. In this he was greatly aided by his masonic connections. An active freemason, Ames later served as the highly visible Grand High Priest of the Grand Chapter of New York State masons. He also profited from producing a steady flow of masonic regalia and medals.
As a painter Ames was not a consistent stylist, but his work generally owes the most to the example of Gilbert Stuart, whose portraits he occasionally copied and acquired. Several compositions, such as his early group portrait, The Fondey Family (1803, Albany Institute of History & Art), stand out in his career as ambitious showpieces, but undoubtedly his greatest bid for national recognition was his portrait (no longer extant) of Vice President, and former New York State Governor, George Clinton. Shortly after Clinton's death in 1812, Ames sent the portrait to the second exhibition of the Society of Artists of the United States in Philadelphia, where it surprised critics and received unusual acclaim. It was honored by becoming the first work ever purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Ames subsequently painted other versions of Clinton's portrait, notably the full-length likeness (1813) in the New York State Capitol. He is also known to have executed a few landscape paintings at this time.
For the most part, though, the artist's activities were restricted to servicing the portrait needs of the upper Hudson River Valley, particularly the state legislature and the still-powerful descendants of the original Dutch patroons. While he made occasional trips to New York City and was elected an Honorary Member of that city's American Academy of Fine Arts in 1825, his financial base remained in Albany. He took an active role in local affairs there, serving as the chairman of the Fine Arts Committee of the Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts when it was established in 1815, and as director and finally president of the Mechanics and Farmers' Bank of Albany. At his death in Albany in 1836, he left a considerable estate worth $66,000, including over 50 of his own works that were auctioned by his family in 1842. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Wheeler, Robert G. "Ezra Ames of Albany (1768-1836): Painter, Banker, Business Man." American Collector 16 (August 1947): 6-8.
Bolton, Theodore and Irwin F. Cortelyou. Ezra Ames of Albany: Portrait Painter, Craftsman, Royal Arch Mason, Banker, 1768-1836. New York, 1955.
The Faces of the City: Albany Portraits from Three Centuries. Exh. cat. University Art Gallery, State University of New York, Albany, 1986.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 6.