Joseph Ames, a self-taught portrait painter, was born in 1816 into a prominent family of Roxbury, New Hampshire. Achieving moderate success in his home region, he relocated in 1841 to Boston, which remained his primary residence for over 25 years. There he fell under the spell of Washington Allston; like a number of young artists, he attempted to emulate Allston's "old master" technique of successive glazes and rich, "Titianesque" color. His opportunity to see the Italian masters firsthand came in 1848, when he traveled to Rome with a commission from officials of the American Roman Catholic Church to execute a full-length portrait of Pius IX. This large painting (8 x 12 ft., present location unknown) was exhibited in Boston the same year and at the National Academy of Design, New York, in 1850. It served as Ames' introduction to the latter city and received a great deal of press attention.
Although Ames never seems to have lacked for business (Tuckerman estimated his production at 75 portraits a year), there is evidence that his later reputation in Boston did not live up to early promise. During the 1850s, he sought additional markets in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and during the summers, he traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, in search of commissions. In Boston he remained active in the art community, exhibiting regularly at the Boston Athenaeum and participating in the formation and governance of the Boston Artists' Association, the Boston Art Club, and the Allston Club. In addition to portraits, he occasionally showed landscapes and genre paintings. Above all, however, he became known for his likenesses of Daniel Webster, of which he painted at least nine. His Last Days of Webster (c. 1856, Bostonian Society), a deathbed scene with over twenty figures, was--like his portrait of Pius IX--engraved and widely distributed.
Ames rented a studio in New York in the early 1860s; by 1869, he had left Boston permanently to begin a new phase of his career in Manhattan, where he was received by critics as a follower of William Morris Hunt. The National Academy immediately elected him an Associate member, and in 1870, a full Academician. His New York residence was nevertheless short-lived, for three years after his arrival, in 1872, he died of "brain fever," leaving a wife (the sculptor Sarah Fisher Clampitt) and several children (one of whom, Josephine Ames, eventually became a painter). [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Tuckerman 1867, 459-460.
Downes, William Howe. "Boston Painters and Paintings. II. Allston and his Contemporaries." Atlantic Monthly 62 (August 1888): 258-266.
Luhrs, Kathleen, ed. American Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 2, by Natalie Spassky. Princeton, 1985: 51-52.
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: 9-10.