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The E-Sylum: Volume 25, Number 38, September 18, 2022, Article 11

THE FRASERS AND CHANGING TASTES IN ART

American Numismatic Biographies author Pete Smith submitted this article on husband-and-wife sculptors Laura Gardin Fraser and James Earle Fraser and the recent fate of their work. Thanks! -Editor

  Changing Tastes in Art

Great monuments built in the past are being removed because they are no longer considered appropriate representations of our public values. Art of the Frasers, James Earle Fraser and Laura Gardin Fraser, are both subject to such changes.

  James Earle Fraser (1876-1953)

James Earle Fraser.1910. James Earle Fraser was born in Winona, Minnesota, on November 4, 1876, the son of Thomas Alexander Fraser (1844-1895) and Cora Estelle West Fraser (1849-1916). Thomas was a construction engineer pushing railroads west. Before the birth of James, he was part of a crew sent to recover bodies of soldiers killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn. James lived for a while in a railroad car and grew up among Indians at Mitchell, South Dakota. He often represented Indian themes with his art.

He was an assistant to sculptor Richard Bock at age fourteen. He studied to be a sculptor, first at the Art Institute of Chicago and then in France at Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Academie Juliane.

An early work was The End of the Trail portraying a weary Indian on a weary horse. He modelled it in clay in 1894 and won a $1000 prize for it in Paris in 1896. This sculpture brought him to the attention of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Fraser exhibited a plaster cast at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was not cast in bronze until 1918.

He worked as an assistant to Saint-Gaudens before opening a studio in 1902. Fraser was an instructor at the Art Students League in New York from 1906 to 1911. On November 27, 1913, he married Laura Gardin, one of his former students. A year later they moved to Westport, Connecticut, and opened a studio they would occupy for fifty years.

Fraser was known for monumental sculptures for public buildings. These included:

  • Benjamin Franklin for the Franklin Institute (1911)
  • Alexander Hamilton south of the Treasury Building (1923)
  • Justice and Law for the Supreme Court Building (1935)
  • Albert Gallatin north the Treasury Building (1947)
  • George S. Patton at West Point (1950)

Fraser created the Theodore Roosevelt equestrian statue for the Museum of Natural History in 1939. On each side of Roosevelt were two shirtless men. One represented a Native American and the other an African American. The statue was removed on January 20, 2022.

His most notable numismatic commission was for the Buffalo Nickel of 1913, sculpting both the obverse Indian Head and reverse bison. He and Laura jointly are credited with the design of the Oregon Trail Memorial half dollar 1926-1929.

Fraser designed the Norse-American Centennial medal of 1925. This is sometimes credited to Opus Fraser.

Fraser died in Westport, Connecticut, on October 11, 1953. He is buried with his wife there at Willowbrook Cemetery.

  Laura Gardin Fraser (1889-1966)

Laura Gardin Fraser.1931 She was born as Laura Gardin in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove on September 14, 1889. Her father was a banker, John Emil Gardin (1853-1929) and her mother was an artist, Alice Tilton Gardin (1859-1949).

She showed an early aptitude for sculpture with guidance from her mother. She studied at the Art Students League from 1907 to 1911. One of her instructors was James Earle Fraser. They were married in 1913 and had no children.

Prior to her marriage in 1913, she received a commission from Woman's Home Companion to produce their Better Babies medal.

She entered a 1931 competition to design a quarter with the head of George Washington. Her design won the competition. That winning design was rejected by Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon who granted the design to John Flanagan.

She won a competition to design an equestrian sculpture for Robert E, Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Baltimore. The sculpture was removed early in the morning of August 16, 2017, and moved to Charlottesville, Virginia.

She is credited with the sculpture of several commemorative coins and congressional medals. Her Alabama Centennial half dollar was the first U. S. coin designed by a woman.

  • Alabama centennial half dollar (1921)
  • Grant Memorial half dollar (1922)
  • Grant Memorial gold dollar (1922)
  • Fort Vancouver Centennial half dollar (1925)
  • Oregon Trail Memorial half dollar (1926-1939)
  • MacArthur Peso and 50 centavos for the Philippines
  • Washington Bicentennial medal (1932) (US 610)
  • Charles A. Lindberg medal (USM 645) competition.
  • Benjamin Franklin Congressional medal
  • George C. Marshall Congressional medal (1946)
  • ANS Centennial Medal (1958)

She was awarded the J. Sanford Saltus medal by the ANS in 1926.

Laura Gardin Fraser died in a hospital in Norwich, Connecticut. She is buried with her husband.

Her winning 1931 Washington design was put on a 1999 five-dollar gold piece commemorating the death of Washington.

The Fraser design is now used as the common obverse of the American Women Quarters™ series beginning in 2022. The initials LGF appear on the truncation.

  Recent Controversy

Laura Gardin Fraser was commissioned to create three bronze panels for a new library at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. These were installed and dedicated in 1965. The panels represent, according to a published guide, that the central portion of the panel depicts in symbolic and allegorical forms the principal events of the period and the personages associated with them. Each panel is about 11 feet tall and 4.5 feet wide.

Last year Congress appointed a Naming Commission to identify Confederacy-affiliated assets at military facilities. They recommended renaming several southern forts that were named after Confederate heroes. They found that the central panel of the Fraser relief has a hooded figure with the label Ku Klux Klan. It appears that this sculpture is outside the intended scope of the Naming Commission. The Academy is considering the report.

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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