Ruth Henshaw Bascom


became in midlife a pastelist of life-size bust profiles on paper. Her artistic productivity was facilitated by a way of life that strongly emphasized community as well asfamily involvement, and was further nurtured by a penchant for travel in New England.Born in rural Leicester, Massachusetts, Bascom was the eldest of ten children. Combining a fondness for children with an ardent advocacy of education, she taughtsummer school between 1791 and 1801 in Leicester and adjacent towns. The daily diary Bascom began in 1789 at age sixteen and faithfully kept for fifty-seven years,through 1846, attests to her broad scholarly interests and accomplishments. It is held in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MassachusettsIn 1804, Bascom married Dr. Asa Miles. She returned to Leicester when Miles died, about a year later, and used her designing and needlework skills to establish amillinery business. In 1806 she married Ezekiel Lysander Bascom, minister of the Congregational Church in Gerry (later Phillipston), Massachusetts. By 1820 theBascoms had moved to Ashby, Massachusetts, where her painting career developed and flourished. Bascom and her husband enjoyed a ministerial exchange in Mainefrom 1837 to 1838, followed by an appointment in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, where Rev. Bascom died in 1841. Ruth Bascom returned to Ashby and continued to paint and travel.
Bascom’s profile portraits, known as “shadows” or “likenesses,” were produced by darkening a room and tracing the sitter’s shadow by candle or lamplight as it wascast upon a wall or other flat surface, to which drawing paper had been affixed. Facial features were then delineated in pencil. Her stylistic development moved throughthree overlapping stages. In the first, between 1801 and the mid-1820s, Bascom indicated features with a few hollow cuts placed against a dark ground. In the secondstage, beginning in 1828, Bascom separately cut clothing parts, such as jackets, jacket collars, dress bodices, boys’ shirt collars, and bonnet bows, then colored andassembled them as a collage, with the sitter’s head to neck region on solid colored paper. Her portrait of
Elizabeth Cummings Low
(1829) is one such collagecomposition pasted onto a slate blue ground; the crisp photographic lines are evocative of the shadow-tracing process. Some of the portraits also had metallic foildecoupage pasted on as buttons, necklace beads, earrings, or spectacle frames. Occa sional, but rarer, touches of realism included genuinesilk neck ribbons thatBascom would affix to the surface. A third type of composition appeared in the mid-1830s, in which Bascom began to draw the likenesses and their backgrounds onone sheet of paper, often employing dark green trees to highlight the sitter’s face, or sketching the background with blue or brown pastel, sometimes with upper-corner convex arcs or ruffled curtains, and alternatively with spandrel corners to suggest an oval inner frame. References to more than 1,400 profiles are found in the artist’sdiary. Her extant profiles number approximately 215.
See also
Painting, American Folk
Avigad, Lois S. “Ruth Henshaw Bascom: A Youthful Viewpoint.”
The Clarion,
vol. 12 (fall 1987): 35–41.Benes, Peter, ed.
Itinerancy in New England and New York.
Boston, 1986