Photo by John Parnell
When Asa Ames carved this strange and beautiful portrait of a young girl with incised and colorful markings on her scalp, he was testifying to a runaway offshoot of Enlightenment faculty psychology that presented itself as a scientific method for self-improvement. Phrenology was conceived in medical circles as a serious study of brain structure as it related to the human mind. The brain was divided into twenty-seven faculties; it was later proposed that the formation of the skull itself conformed to these faculties.
In America, brothers Lorenzo and Orson Squire Fowler promulgated a form of practical phrenology: through an examination of the bumps on a person’s head, one’s nature could be analyzed and recalibrated with a program of exercise or by neglect of specific faculties. The Fowlers were major advocates of social reform and published on subjects promoting the benefits of health food, homeopathy, hydropathy, and mesmerism, and also agitating for women’s and children’s rights, sex education, and other reforms and therapies. The era of self-improvement was now the age of self-help.
Shortly before his death, Asa Ames was living in the household of Dr. Harvey B. Marvin, a homeopath, physician, and practitioner of alternative therapies. It is likely that the Phrenological Head was carved around the time of this association. There is no real precedent for the three-dimensional portraits in wood by Ames that are known today. The flat base of the waist- and bust-length carvings seems to derive from a beautiful but short-lived stone-carving tradition in Renaissance Florence, perhaps innovated by Desiderio da Settignano. Like much painted portraiture of the day, the representations are direct, frontal, and iconic in their minimalist simplicity.
Stacy C. Hollander, “Phrenological Head,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.