Meadowlark Gallery: The Artist Biographies

James Earle Fraser
The following is from the Project Proposal for the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees by Dean Krakel, Managing Director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center; March, 1969.


James Earle Fraser was born in Winona, Minnesota, on November 4, 1876. His f ather was Thomas Alexander and mother Caroline West Fraser. He had one sister, Pearl. Mr. Fraser's ancestors were settlers of the colonial period. Hi.s mother's side of their genealogy can be traced back to the Mayflower and the founding of the colony, of Plymouth in 1620. His father's ancestry was North European (German) stock, leaving Europe and ultimately settling in the Great Lakes region.

Mr. Fraser's father was a mechanical engineer, professionally employed by the Chicago-Ml.lwaukee Railroad. It was the construction of the railroad from Mason City, Iowa, into Mitchell and on to the Black Hills, South Dakota, that brought the family west. The year was 1930. During their first year in the territory. the Frasers lived In a railroad boxcar. Indians were frequent visitors to the Frasers' "camp." "Each night," James Fraser recalled, "We were surrounded by packs of wolves. Their mournful howling caused my spine to tingle and impressed upon me the lonely vastness of the West."

When he was eight, young Fraser saw a man carving in a soft, white chalk-stone. He discovered the quarry was located along the Jim River near Mitchell. From then on the boy was frequently found in the chalky pits drawing and carving animals from the white stone.

From his unpublished memoirs it is easy to ascertain young Fraser's love of the West and the kind of family he was reared in. "It was a tragedy for me, a small boy," he wrote, "to leave most of my pets, my pony Billy, and the prairie that was home to me, and go to a place that I felt I couldn't possibly like. My family, knowing how unhappy I was, allowed me to take a pony and my pet dog to forget a little. My mother liked going east, and I wondered why, and coundn't understand her wanting to leave our prairie homes, Necessarily, she said we had to go with my father to Minneapolis, where he was to aid in building the South railroad from that city to Sault Sainte Marie connecting with a branch of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

"In Minneapolis, I attended public school for about a year. The events which I remember more than any others were, first: that I was fortunate in winning a city wide competition for drawing and composition -- this added to my desire to draw constantly, and I did work hard for a boy; and second the entirely different landscape. The hills, lakes, and great trees were new and exciting to me, as was the fishing that I found in the lakes and streams of Minnesota, as compared with the Dakota plains. The pine trees stood seemingly hundreds of feet high, and there were millions of them. I first saw them when I went with my father over the new railway to Sault Sainte Marie. I felt that we were passing through a narrow corridor of dark giants.

"Then, too soon, we moved, this time to Chicago with all of our goods. The furniture was put in a boxcar with my favorite dog and the riding pony that I had graduated to from my little Billy, both of which I had brought from Dakota. Shortly after arriving, my mother and sister came and we were again one family; and there was found for me a very interesting preparatory - the Polytechnic, where I could continue my school work, and where, at the same time, I could take architectural drawing. Afterwards I persuaded my father to go with me to the Art Institute to see what chance there was for a thirteen year old to study. I remembered father talking to the director of the institute, who was the brother of Daniel Chester French, the sculptor, and his kindness in showing us about the school. "The next year, during vacation, I obtained a position In the studio of Richard Book, the sculptor, which gave me an excellent start in a professional soulptor's studio. He was at the time making figurines for a library in Indianapolis. This was a.wonderful opportunity for a boy to study in a studio and help work on a large group of sculpture, even if it was only handing the clay to the sculptor. Later I began attending the Chicago Art Institute at night, where many to-be-famous artists were studying at the time -- men well known in the present art world."

The elder Fraser, an exacting draughtsman with an engineer's experience and mind, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, in spite of a show of artistic talent and sincerity. In his memoirs, Fraser tells of a father's plan for his son and how he resolved the .matter in his own mind: "He was very anxious for me to go to Cornell University, but I was so Interested in art that I felt I would rather go on with that study than spend four years In a University.

"Father was not sure that I should study art -- he thought I might be a failure -- so he sought the advice of his friend, Sir William Van Horn, knowing that he was not only a very good artist, but a connoisseur of art.

"We were invited to dine with Sir William when he next came to Chicago, and I was asked to bring my photographs and drawings so that he might judge them. He, I believe, was the first person who suggested, and did, connect around the world transportation, Canadian-Pacific steamship line which went to Japan, around the Suez Canal and Europe, then to the St. Lawrence River to Canada and Quebec.

"I shall always be thankful to him for he approved my studying art, and my father agreed to his decision, and therefore, within a short time, I found myself on an ocean liner sailing for France and to schools in Paris, not knowing a person by name or where to find a school.

"Fortunately, on the way over I met a playwright, Edward Knobloch, who had been to Paris many times, and knew the ropes. He took me to the Hotel Vaugirard and introduced me to a sculptor named Slade, and from that time, after Slade introduced me to three or four others, all was clear sailing."

Young Fraser exhibited his model "End of the Trail," in Paris, which won him the $1,000 prize sponsored by the American Art Association in 1898, and more important, attracted the attention of the world renowned artist, August Saint-Gaudens, who asked him to become his assistant. This initial contact led to a strong friendship, and Fraser became Saint-Gaudens' disciple. Fraser worked with the artist on his great statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Because of climatic conditions, work often started at 3:00 A.M. During the rest of the day Fraser usually studied. During his years in France, he also studied under the famous French sculptor Jean Alexander Falguiere, attended Ecole'des Beaux Arts, the Julian Academy, and the Colarossi. When Saint-Gaudens decided to return to his home in Windsor, Vermont, he placed Fraser in charge of dismantling the huge statue, packing it, and supervising shipment. Once in his Vermont studio, Saint-Gaudens and his staff of assistants resumed work. The Sherman statue was finally unveiled at 59th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City. The young artist also assisted the master sculptor with the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial for St. Giles Church In Edinburgh, Scotland.

The artist's four years with August Saint-Gaudens shaped his future; from him he was to gain inspiration, develop techniques, and working habits that were to dignify his contributions. Saint-Gaudens gave his young protege an important break when he recommended that Fraser do the bust of President Theodore Roosevelt. The great artist complained that he was too ill to comply with the President's request that he do the portrait.

At their first meeting in the East Room of the White House, the President said, "You are a much younger man than I expected, Mr. Fraser. It goes to show how merit must find its level, doesn't it? It can't be kept down. I asked Saint-Gaudens for the man who could do the job, with perfect confidence in his choice. The fact that he sent you proves that you are the man."

When Fraser had the bust set up in clay, he returned to Washington for the sittings. Many felt that Roosevelt would not be able to sit still long enough to pose. "The President posed for me faithfully for two weeks, morning and afternoon, in the East Room," he wrote, "and though he frequently had to receive cabinet members and to attend to business with other officials, often we had two hours of uninterrupted time together."

The commission was important for the artist since it was the beginning of a warm friendship that lasted for the duration of Roosevelt's life, and the vivid memories of him were always with Fraser. "'He had been a Dakota cowboy and rancher," Fraser said, "and this fact, coupled with my love of the Dakotas, immediately provided a bond for our friendship. We often talked about the West and, of course, his knowledge was prodigious." The bust, when completed, became a favorite of the President and his family. In time the artist was asked to do two more poses, one the San Juan bust and the other a heroic-size equestrian for the American Museum of Natural History, but none of his works was so well liked and representative of the President as his first, which became known as "The Fraser Bust of Roosevelt."

For years authorities in art circles discussed Saint-Gaudens' decision to have James Earle Fraser do the bust. Some speculated that Saint-Gaudens, with his knowledge of Fraser's talent, sensitivity, and love of the West, felt that he was the only artist who could do the portrait Roosevelt so deserved. The well known metropolitan art critic, Royal Cortissoz, writing in Mentor magazine of the bust, said: "Many sides of Roosevelt's nature, as well as his earnestness, purposefulness and forcefulness, are expressed in this portrait. It has the inclusion of minor characteristics of his subject without loss of force in the dominant qualities." From this time throughout his life, James Earle Fraser was never without commissions. After Saint-Gaudens' death in 1907, the artist took up residency in New York and established a studio in picturesque MacDougal Alley in Greenwich Village.

Beginning in 1906 through 1911, Fraser was instructor in sculpture at the Art Students' League in New York City. He was one of the first to make artistically fashionable what was once a block of famous old carriage houses of New York aristocrats. Among the group of artists and writers who came here, several were to grow into national prominence, principally, Robert Henri, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Daniel Chester French, George Deforest Brush, Ernest Lawson, James Huneker, and the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. Fraser and Robinson became close friends, an association that lasted all their lives.

Among Fraser's early commissions were portraits of the son of industrialist Brewster Hathaway; a relief of Sonny-Boy and Flora Whitney; and Jock Whitney. Then came busts of Sherman and George Pratt , and a relief of Morris K. Jesup. Other portraits were of Roland Harriman, August Saint-Gaudens, Theodore Roosevelt for the Senate Chambers and another for the San Juan Hill Memorial, Mary Garden, Warren Delano, Elihu Root, John Nance Garner, Dr. William M. Polk, a relief of Mr. and Mrs. Albright, John Riley, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, a Basque, head of a young girl, Sage Goodwin, John Goodwin, Henrietta and John Deming, Pat Ford, Eastman Chase and others.

Mr. Fraser's work can be essentially classed as portrait statues, architectural sculptures, idealistic works, medallions, medals and minor sculpture. Among his heroic portrait statues and memorials are John Hay, Cleveland; Sarcophagus for Robert Todd Lincoln, Arlington National Cemetery; Bishop Potter, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City; fountain group for E. H. Harriman, Arden, New York; John Ericsson Memorial, Washington, D.C.; two figures of "Law and Justice" in front of Supreme Court Building, Washington D.C.; Second Division War Memorial, Washington D.C. ; Thomas Jefferson, State Capitol Building, Jefferson City, Missouri; Meriwether Lewis and William Clark for the Missouri State Capitol In Jefferson City; Benjamin Franklin, Springfiel Illinois; two bridge groups, the "Pioneers" and "Discoverers" for the Michigan Avenue Bridge, Chicago; Albert Gallatin and Alexander Hamilton, United States Treasury Building, Washington, D.C.; Abraham Lincoln for the beginning of the Lincoln Highway, Jersey City, New Jersey; seated statue of Thomas A. Edison, Edison Institute, Dearborn, Michigan; seated statue of Harvey Firestone, Akron, Ohio; four symbolic figures in Elks National Memorial, Chicago; primitive inventor of water power, Niagara Falls, New York; Pegasus group, a study; equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt as the naturalist before the American Museum of Natural History, New York City; Daniel Boone, John James Audubon, Meriwether Lewis and George Rogers Clark in the same setting; two groups, the Peaceful Arts, on the Lincoln Memorial Plaza forming the bridge heads to Rock Creek Bridge, Washington, D.C.; General George S. Patton, Jr., at West Point and also at Boston; recumbent f igure of Dr. F. Ward Denys, Washington Cathedral, Washington, D.C.; Canadian Officer, Winnipeg, Canada; Victory figure, Bank of Montreal, Canada; the Mayo brothers, Rochester, Minnesota; "End of the Trail," Exposition Park, San Francisco, Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina, and Waupun, Wisconsin; Pediments National Archives Building, Washington D.C. and U.S. Commerce Building, Washington, D.C. Apart from his large-scale work, James Earle Fraser was known as a designer of medals. His medal was the first to honor Saint-Gaudens. It was struck for the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. This was succeeded in 1906 by the Thomas Edison Medal, prize winner in a competition open to all American sculptors; the E. H. Harriman Safety Medal; the Medal of Award bestowed by the Academy of Arts and Letters; the Award Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts; the medal given by the American Committee for Relief of Devastated France; a medal awarded by Williams College in honor of one of its graduates; Yale University Howland Memorial Medal; the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association Medal of Honor; and the Melville Medal for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Fraser further distinguished his career by designing two important military medals; the Victory Medal of World War I and the Navy Cross. The Victory Medal was authorized in 1919 for members of the United States Armed Forces who served on active duty between April 6, 1917, and November 11, 1918. More than 4,000,000 Victory Medals were struck. Fraser's beautifully designed Navy Cross is second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor for Navy personnel, and is awarded to officers and enlisted men who distinguish themselves by extraordinary heroism in military operations against the enemy.

Sources and Notes are available upon request.

View high resolution images of works by James Earle Fraser when available.