Born 4 November 1876 in Winona, Minnesota
Died 11 October 1953 in Westport, Connecticut
Buried Willowbrook Cemetery, Westport, Connecticut
Elected 2 November 1918 at age forty-one
James Earle Fraser was born in Minnesota in 1876, the year of the dreadful massacre of the Little Big Horn. His father was an engineer engaged in building railroads in Dakota Territory; and Jim went along with his father and saw and stored in his mind the Indians, buffalo, horses, and pioneer figures that in later years he immortalized in statues and coins and medals.
He started carving things out of stone from a nearby chalkstone quarry when he was eight years old, and he never stopped. When he was seventeen, he did that epitome of the Western plains, “The End of the Trail” (an exhausted Indian on a pony). He took it to Paris with him, when he went there to study in 1895, and it caught the attention of Saint-Gaudens, with whom he began to work immediately. The buffalo nickel, the “Pioneer Woman,” the statues of Franklin in Philadelphia, of the two great secretaries, Hamilton and Gallatin, before the Treasury Building in Washington, and of General Patton at West Point—all these, and many more, are his.
There is a legend about Fraser that he worked without pause or relaxation, and certainly the amount and quality of his sculpture seem beyond the compass of a single life. He was completely engrossed with his calling—thinking about it, dreaming of it, practicing it without surcease. But he took time out to look around him, to see and understand, and to become thoroughly a part of the great world.
For many years Fraser divided his activities between a New York studio and one in Westport, Connecticut. Gradually he centered all his work in the country studio, which was large and suited to his needs. Here he had ample space and every convenience for work, hydraulic lifts for raising and lowering heavy sculpture, and two pairs of immense doors at either end of the studio that opened upon stone platforms, and through which he could push his statues and study them in the sunlight.
On entering the studio, you were greeted by the barks and swift onrush of a couple of cocker spaniels, then you might glimpse Fraser high on a ladder, working on a horse whose head almost touched the roof; or again he might be sitting down, bent over a tiny medal or making a drawing for the pedestal of a statue. He seemed undisturbed by interruptions, and as he worked was ready to talk with anyone who came in. The air was full of radio, uttering baseball scores, or the mighty notes of a symphony orchestra. All about were great white shapes in plaster, pale and mountainous, completed figures ready for the bronze caster, others still to be worked on.
This rugged Scot was the dearest friend of Edward Arlington Robinson; and Robinson lived with him, on and off, for many years and found in him and his wife the security he sorely needed.
Whether Fraser was the greatest sculptor of his time or not, one distinction he already shares with the giants of bygone days. The people of America have taken to their hearts and accepted as national symbols a small number of works in sculpture. The list is brief, and to it belong [John Q. A.] Ward’s Washington on the steps of the sub-Treasury of this city, Saint-Gaudens’ standing Lincoln in Chicago, [Daniel Chester] French’s “Minute Man” by the bridge at Concord, and “The End of the Trail” by James Earle Fraser.
That is good enough for any man.
George W. Martin
1954 Century Association Yearbook
Fraser was born in Winona, Minnesota, where he was exposed to the frontier life and to Native Americans, and these early memories were expressed in many of his works.
He began working as an assistant to sculptor Richard Bock and attending classes at the Art Institute of Chicago at age 14. Fraser arrived at a time when he could participate in much artistic work associated with Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. In 1895, Bock helped him gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where his work soon came to the attention of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who hired Fraser.
When Fraser set up his own studio in New York in 1902 Saint Gaudens’ effect on his work was profound, and much of his early sculptures were bas-relief portraits. Fraser developed a reputation as a numismatist, creating his best-known work—the Indian Head or “Buffalo” nickel—in 1913. That year Fraser married a former student of his, sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser, who remained his partner for the rest of his life.
Fraser had several pieces in the Armory Show of 1913, and in 1915 he produced his most recognized work, the expressive End of the Trail. Over five million were struck of Fraser’s Victory Medal, produced in 1919 to commemorate the end of World War I. But soon Fraser’s attention turned to larger works, public monuments and architectural sculpture. His last major installation was The Peaceful Arts for the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.
Fraser was proposed for the Century in 1918 by fellow sculptor Alexander S. Calder, and he remained a member until his death in 1953. Muralist Barry Faulkner, a friend of Fraser’s from their days in Paris together, said of him: “His character was like a good piece of Scotch tweed, handsome, durable and warm.”
“Centurions on Stamps,” Part I (Exhibition, 2010)