The study of art may be perceived as trivial, yet for many it can be a cathartic pastime, and still others are clever enough to earn a living from it. An investigation under this topic which can be greatly refined is sculpture. The three dimensional medium is so broad that it allows many areas of awareness, and also permits the student multiple personal preferences.
The Empire State is a great repository of sculpture, and our colleges and universities hold much of this collection and provide instruction as well. One fine example would be Syracuse University, which holds a vast assemblage of art through several centuries. The collection at Syracuse University includes the papers of Laura Gardin Fraser and her husband James Earle Fraser. This couple produced some very notable art work; however, their names are not widely recognized.
James Fraser’s roots were on the North American prairie. Mr. Fraser grew up in the Dakota Territory during the late nineteenth century, his father being a railroad design engineer. He developed an appreciation and respect for his Native American neighbors and their lifestyle. His artistic talent showed through early and he began his formal studies at the Chicago Institute of Art at the young age of fifteen, soon apprenticing in the studio of Richard Boch.
In 1896 he moved to Paris to study at the famed École des Beaux-Arts, where his prize-winning creativity brought him to the attention of fellow American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. James Fraser worked with Saint-Gaudens for several years, and when the older sculptor could not complete a commission of President Theodore Roosevelt, he turned it over to his capable understudy, expanding his well-deserved reputation into public art. James Fraser operated his own studio on MacDougal Alley in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, and he also taught at the celebrated Art Students League in New York, where he influenced many aspiring artists.
Laura Gardin, like James, who was thirteen years her senior, also demonstrated a predilection toward sculptural creation from childhood. She grew up in suburban Chicago and moved to New York to continue her education at the Art Students League where she was introduced to her instructor and future husband, James.
They were married on Thanksgiving Day in 1913, contemporaneous with the US Mint releasing James’ “Buffalo Nickel” five-cent coin. Perhaps James Fraser’s good relationship with former President Roosevelt helped him secure the commission from the Mint for this popular piece; however the coin was not without detractors. Elements of the design, such as the bison’s horn and tail, and the high-relief of the cheek, nose and chin of the brave’s profile, made the coin difficult for the Mint to strike. These same relief points did not wear well in use, and it might be said that the Buffalo worked his tail off sliding across the bar top for many a nickel draft.
James Fraser’s reputation was furthered at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition (P-PIE) in 1915, where he exhibited his haunting End of the Trail sculpture, depicting a slumping Indian brave, lance pointed at the ground, mounted on an equally slumping pony, with nowhere left to ride.
Laura Gardin Fraser realized economic success as a sculptor as well, in an era when it was very rare for women to do so. She received many commissions, and developed a reputation for both medallic art and her creations of large animals. She designed the Congressional Medal awarded to Charles Lindbergh, following his historic 1927 flight from New York to Paris. For the Elks National Memorial Headquarters in Chicago, she created two sculptures inside the rotunda, using classical figures with equine influence. In the first titled Earth, she uses a centaur and satyrs, and in the other, Air, she uses Apollo and Pegasus.
Laura also created the reclining elks which flank the entrance on the outside of the building. She produced several other notable equine sculptures, such as the Pegasus sculpture at Brookgreen Gardens, and Man o’ War’s sire Fair Play in the bluegrass of Kentucky. No longer on view is her creation that harks back to the time when commissions rather than politics dictated sculptural design; this would be the double equestrian monument of the mounted Generals Lee and Jackson, which was recently removed from Baltimore’s Wyman Park. Laura was elected a member of the prestigious National Academy of Design (often in print her name is followed by the initials N.A. indicating this distinction) and the holder of the Saltus Medal presented by the Numismatic Society.
The Frasers were part of the leading New York art circle, and participated in a competition staged by the artist/philanthropist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (wife of leading thoroughbred owner Harry Payne Whitney, daughter-in-law of William C. Whitney, of Saratoga racing fame, and mother of legendary horseman Sonny Whitney) at her famed Whitney Studio in Greenwich Village to raise funds for Allied War Relief during the First World War.
The competition, termed “Indigenous Sculptors,” involved 20 young sculptors (which besides the Frasers, included notables Elie Nadelman, Jo Davidson, Edward McCartan, Mahonri Young, Hunt Diederich, Paul Manship and Gertrude Whitney herself) who were given equal amounts of clay, and a shared 48 hour time limit to produce an original design, all of which would be auctioned to benefit the cause.
In addition to the required art supplies and studio space, Mrs. Whitney, whose contributions to the war effort are legendary, provided sumptuous feasts and an unlimited supply of cigarettes, good cigars and liberal quantities of liquor in an effort to produce good times and good works from the artists.
James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) and Laura Gardin Fraser (1889-1966) developed a very impressive oeuvre; their success as professional sculptors continued for many years, uninterrupted by the economic woes of the Great Depression endured by most in the nation, and allowed them the wealth to climb within New York’s loftiest social strata. The couple had a studio/home built in the rolling acres of fashionable Westport, along Connecticut’s Gold Coast. Their new home on Eleven O’Clock Road was equipped with his and hers work areas.
Anyone who has wallpapered a room with a spouse can appreciate that provision. The Frasers had no children, and following their death, their papers and personal collection, with over 500 pieces of artwork, were donated to Syracuse University, and to a grateful posterity, by Laura’s sister Leila Gardin Sawyer along with $50,000 to aid with transport and installation in 1967. In front of the Maxwell School of Citizenship on the Syracuse Campus is a life-sized sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. The original was created by James Fraser for the Eastern Terminus of the Lincoln Highway, in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1930. The plaster he originally created came to Syracuse University and was posthumously cast in 1968, as another gift from Mrs. Sawyer.
Ample examples of the Fraser’s sculpture is housed in the Shaffer Art Building at SU, both on display and in rooms which can be accessed with staff, in a fine modern facility. The collection is so large that much of it is stored off campus. Their papers, officially known as James Earle and Laura Gardin Fraser Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries, are available to researchers in the comfortable Reading Room of Bird Library.
Special note on the Fair Play sculpture
The correspondence in the Fraser collection is fascinating to read through, and there are many unexpected treasures. One chain of correspondence includes a 1929 statement from Mrs. Fraser to Joseph E. Widener, thoroughbred owner/breeder, with an $18,000 invoice for the sculpture Fair Play, commissioned for his burial site.
Considering that a 1929 Ford Model A Roadster cost $385, this amount shows quite a commitment. It is also interesting to see that Mrs. Fraser provided the pedestal, which would more typically be provided by a memorial company near the final location. Obviously, Mr. Widener spared no expense in creating this enduring equine memorial (presently a part of Normandy Farm). A later accounting gives detail of the production process, with the plaster going to the foundry to build the mold for pouring the bronze.
A great part of this collection at Syracuse University is the imagery it contains. These images include the Fair Play work in the studio, supported by armatures and false work, as the sculptor developed her creation upon a scaffold. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the entire collection are the many, many detailed images of the thoroughbred horse Fair Play himself in his paddock at Mr. Widener’s Elmendorf Farm, created for the sculptor to use in her modeling. These images were made by the renowned Lexington photographer Leonard Stansfield Sutcliffe, who immigrated to the United States from England, via Canada. The Fraser Collection at Syracuse University is invaluable in so many respects.
Photos, from above: James Fraser’s sculpture of Abe Lincoln at the Maxwell School of Citizenship on the Syracuse University Campus; display of Buffalo Herd prepared by James Earle Fraser; postcard of the statue of Fair Play at Elmendorf Farm; and display of Storm Driven by James Earle Fraser.