Meadowlark Gallery: The Artist Biographies

Laura Gardin Fraser (1889-1966)

The following are various excerpts 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. At various paragraphs we have inserted comments from other areas of this Project Proposal.

Mrs. James Earle Fraser was born Laura Gardin on September 14, 1889, in Chicago, daughter of John Emil and Alice Tilton Gardin. Her mother was the daughter of Theodore Tilton, whose forebears landed at Gravesend Bay, Long Island, in 1640. Mrs. Fraser's father was born in Charleston, South Carolina, February 8, 1853, of French Huguenot ancestry. Her uncle had served with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Following the war her father, then a child, was taken to Europe for his education. He grew into manhood there, attending the Universities of Wurtenburg and Stuttgart in Germany. He met Alice Tilton while attending Stuttgart University. Upon his graduation they were married on July 4, 1881. Mr. Gardin received his first business experience with the banking firm of Pflaum and Company in Stuttgart. Returning to America, the Gardins located in Morton Park near Chicago, where Mr. Gardin had accepted an executive's position with the First National Bank of Chicago.

Laura and her sisters, Eva and Leila, were born here and received their elementary education in Morton Park schools. In 1901, Mr. Gardin was made manager of the bank's foreign department. In 1904, the Gardins moved to New York City, where Mr. Gardin became head of the foreign department of the National City Bank.

The Gardins had a summer home at Caldwell, New Jersey. It was here that Laura was given her first horse and developed her lifelong love of animals. Laura attended school in Rye, New York, then Wadleigh and Horace Mann High Schools. She graduated from the latter in the class of 1907. At an early age she had shown an aptitude in modeling figures and working in clay, a talent she developed under the guidance of her mother. Laura recalled, "Mother, whom we affectionately called Neo, was both a talented painter and musician. She taught us girls and encouraged us to study the arts." Leila Gardin Sawyer recalls Laura's talent in sculpture as a youngster. Among her first figures were "Rough Rider" and a portrait of actress "Maude Adams."

After high school, Laura studied at Columbia University briefly, then enrolled for work at the Art Students' League. It was during her years at the League that she met and studied under James Earle Fraser. A treasured album in the Laura Fraser collection has a number of photographs of the handsome young artist. The earliest photograph showing Laura and "Jimmy" together is dated 1908. Several pictures record an attractive Laura Gardin demonstrating great finesse as an aspiring sculptress in the Art Students' League. As a student in her first year at the League, she won the Saint-Gaudens Medal for her work. During her second year, she was awarded a scholarship, carrying with another year of study. In her last term, she won the Saint-Gaudens Figure Prize, a coveted trophy among students. From 1910 through 1912, Laura worked as an instructor under Fraser.

She became Jimmy's most illustrious disciple, so illustrating that they fell in love and were married on Thanksgiving Day, 1913. "He was a great teacher," Laura recalled. "Jimmy had the rare quality of being able to recognize what someone felt. He never liked to work in one specific manner. He encouraged individualism. Everyone loved him–especially me."

"The year following our marriage," Laura recalled, "we bought property in Westport. Our home was colonial in origin and we could date it back more than two hundred years. Then we built our studio in the center of forty acres. We designed it for our future together. It was thirty feet by sixty feet and a story and a half high. Big as it was, we kept it full most of the time. We loved it..." The Frasers spent their winters at their New York apartment and studio. Laura Fraser's life work, like that of her husband, was tremendous.

Although recognized principally for her medallic contributions, she won outstanding commissions to do heroic-size sculpture. Most distinguished was her winning the competition to do the double equestrian statue of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Baltimore. The competition was held in 1936 and six eminent American sculptors including Laura Fraser were invited to submit designs. Laura was the only woman sculptor invited to enter the competition.

"Jimmy and I had standing jokes between us. One of them was when I finished a job and it was presented, we would wager as to how long it would be before someone would comment to me, ‘Bet Mr. Fraser helped you on this one.' One time in fun I snapped back at a wealthy patron, ‘Just who is this James Earle Fraser I keep hearing about?'"

Another heroic-size group done by Laura Fraser was the Flying Pegasus sculptured in white granite with a floating figure for Archer Huntington's beautiful Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. Other large sculptural pieces by Laura Fraser include the "Wrestlers," also in cut stone; two reclining elk in front of the Elks National Memorial in Chicago; a life-size equestrian portrait of Fair Play, sire of Man-of-War, made for Mrs. Joseph Widener of Lexington, Kentucky; three panels done in relief, nine feet by four feet, depicting the history of the United States, now at the United States Military Academy, West Point; a four by twenty one foot panel also in relief, titled "Oklahoma Run," containing more than two hundred fifty figures, primarily horses and riders; four ten foot panels in raised relief for the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge in Washington, D. C.. Mrs. Fraser created several small sculptures, mostly animals which include lambs, puppy dogs, penguins, frogs, chickens and polo ponies for the National Polo Association. She also did models of mascots for both military academies–the Navy's Goat and the Army's Mule.

Mrs. Fraser accomplished relief portraits of her dear friend, Mrs. E. H. Harriman; Governor Thomas Kilby of Alabama; the Henry S. Drinker relief, Lehigh University, Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania; a relief portrait of Governor John Tener for the Elks Memorial in Chicago; the Hitt Memorial relief in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D. C.; the Grape Baby Fountain for Delaware Park, Buffalo, New York; and the Keep Memorial Group in Newport Cemetery. Her busts of Mary Lyon, educator and Gilbert Stuart, the painter, are in New York University's Hall of Fame. The profile bust of Mrs. Harriman, designed on a plaque, won her the National Academy of Design's Saltus Medal in 1928.

The sculptress won competitions for the Charles A. Lindberg Congressional Medal, the official United States George Washington Bicentennial Medal, and the Benjamin Franklin Congressional Medal in honor of his 250th birthday. Mrs. Fraser was awarded the following among her medallic commissions: United States Army and Navy Chaplains' Medal, World War I; Irish Setter Club Medal; Morgan Horse Club Medal; Better Babies Medal, for Woman's Home Companion; Alabama Commemorative fifty cent piece; Ulysses S. Grant Memorial fifty cent piece and gold dollar; Fort Vancouver fifty cent piece; General Douglas A. MacArthur peso and fifty centavo coins for the Philippine government; Admiral Richard E. Byrd Medal and the Hubbard Medal, both for the National Geographic Society; Massachusetts Tercentenary Medal; the United States Military Academy Sesquicentennial Medal; the Sylvanus Thayer Medal for the United States Military Academy; Bide-A-Wee Medal for human imagination; the American Bar Association Medal; the Smithsonian Institute's National Academy of Sciences Medal; the S. F. B. Morse American Geographic Society Medal; the Wolcott Medal for the Smithsonian Institute; the Oklahoma Semi-Centennial Medal; the Medal of Honor of the National Sculpture Society; and the American Numismatic Society Medal.

A major undertaking accomplished by Mrs. Fraser was the creation of four larger than life sculptured plaques representing the strong traits in the character of President Theodore Roosevelt. The plaques, titled "Foresight," "Courage," "Power," and "Leadership," were commissioned by the Fine Arts Commission in Washington, D. C., at a cost of $22,000.00. The plaques were to have been set into the four abutments of the Roosevelt Bridge crossing the Potomac River. Mrs. Fraser used Greek mythology to depict her subjects. Laura completed the large works in 1960 and they were shipped to Washington, D. C. where, for some reason not fully apparent to her, they were placed in storage.

At the time of her death she had not received an answer as to why the Roosevelt plaques had not been placed as originally planned. When Mrs. Fraser passed away August 14, 1966, she received high recognition and her work was widely acclaimed, but no notice or compliment eclipsed the fact that she had been the widow of James Earle Fraser.

James Earle and Laura Gardin Fraser were an imposing couple, inseparable although childless. In spite of forty years in close harmony in their studio, the Frasers collaborated on only one subject, the Oregon Trail Centennial Coin. "We talked and laughed all our lives," Laura said. "When we weren't working we were talking, and we never grew tired of each other or ran out of subject matter."

Sources and Notes are available upon request.

View high resolution images of works by Laura Gardin Fraser when available.