John Frazee (1790-1852) was the first American to carve a portrait bust in marble, and the first American to receive a commission from Congress, but despite these twin accomplishments, he's been pretty much forgotten. If you've never heard his name you are not alone.
"John Frazee, Sculptor," which went on view April 25 at the National Portrait Gallery, delivers him at last from his relative obscurity. The gallery's exhibit has been gracefully installed; its catalogue, written in large part by Frederick S. Voss, the gallery's historian, is an admirable piece of research. Because Frazee yearned for fame (and believed himself a genius) he would have wept hot tears of gratitude (he loved histrionic language) at the thought of such a show.
Chances are most viewers will find it less than thrilling, unless they're greatly interested in neoclassical portrait busts. Frazee's are conventional, or relatively so, but most of them aren't bad. They look half-Roman, half-American. They're Roman from the neck down (most of them wear togas) and Yankee from the neck up. Worthy Yankee visages -- John Jay's, John Marshall's and broad-browed Daniel Webster's -- rule John Frazee's show.
His sculpture is impressive, especially considering his meager education. He had hardly any schooling. Unlike his chief competitors, Horatio Greenough for example, he never went to Europe, and thus had little opportunity to study classical examples. He came to art the hard way -- by carving tombstones in Rahway, N.J., the town where he was born.
He experienced "his first buddings of genius" (his grandmother had asked him to design her flower beds) when he was still a little boy, but despite that happy memory, his childhood was hard. His family was poor, his father was a drunk, his home, or so the sculptor wrote, was plagued "by discord, strife, and want." By the time he was 11 Frazee was already working for his keep, "lashed down to the severest toil and drudgery" as a child laborer on a neighbor's farm. At 14, Frazee ran away -- and indentured himself for seven years to a local builder. While there he learned to chip at stones. Free, at last, at 21, he "looked around to see how many cases of mortality" there'd been recently in Rahway, and then set up his own business -- as the area's only maker of cemetery stones.
Reproductions of such monuments begin his exhibition. The dates incised upon them prove the niceness of his judgment: John Nafies died at 22, Hannah Terrill at 27, Frazee's niece Jane at nine months. His tombstone business prospered.
In 1817, after reading the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Frazee bought his first piece of "fine Italian marble." His evident ambition made the stoneyard owner laugh. "You carve!" he said derisively. "What can you carve, you Yankee Jerseyman?" But Frazee persevered.
By 1818, in partnership with his brother, he had opened a "monument and mantelpiece business" in New York City. It was there, at the American Academy of Fine Arts, that he first discovered plaster casts of antique and modern sculptures. His life was "changed forever." There, among those dusty casts, he pledged himself to Art.
"In regard to my Profession," he declaimed in 1824, "I scarcely know how to speak. I have done nothing save to grasp the chisel and approach the block & thus I stand waiting the will of Heaven & the voice of my Country . . . If it be true that I am the first American that has lifted the tool, then it is not less true that I have before me an arduous task."
That year he carved, from life, a bust of the Marquis de Lafayette. (The sculpture has been lost, but a brass button reproducing it is included in the show.) Frazee's sculpture improved greatly when, in 1828, he hired a young immigrant, Robert E. Launitz, who had studied with the Danish master Bertel Thorwaldsen and thus was able to instruct his new employer in sculptural techniques. Then, in 1830, Frazee got his first big break.
That year he was asked to carve a marble bust of Chief Justice John Jay for the Capitol in Washington. Frazee described the commission as the "first instance where our Government had voluntarily bestowed its patronage on an American genius." The statue is in the show. When displayed briefly in Manhattan, it attracted, wrote its maker, "upwards of 4,000 visitors a day."
Jay wears a Roman toga and, underneath that robe, a shirt of fine linen. That finely handled passage -- from flesh to thinnest linen, to heavily draped wool -- shows how well the sculptor had learned to handle stone.
Though constrained by the conventions of the style he had chosen, Frazee did his best to give his busts some degree of variety. Nathaniel Bowditch wears a buttoned undershirt; Daniel Webster's is nicely pleated; Chief Justice John Marshall wears no undershirt and instead, rather daringly, bares his broad stone chest.
For a while in the 1830s, Frazee's future seemed assured. He carved seven busts for the Boston Athenaeum, and most received high praise. But thereafter Frazee's art career began to rather languish. Frazee put the blame on his foreign competition. He was particularly offended by the English sculptor Robert Ball Hughes, an artist who distressed him by depicting Alexander Hamilton in 18th-century garb. Frazee preferred togas, and complained, in a bad poem, that John Bull has sent America "his leeches/ And among them a maker of a Statue in Breeches."
Frazee's commissions grew ever rarer. And though he took a job supervising the construction of the New York Custom House, his reputation dimmed. In 1837, tired of his sniping at his fellow artists, and of what Voss calls "his incurable impulse to advertise his own genius," the exasperated members of the National Academy dropped him from full membership. Frazee, who was never rich (he'd fathered 20 children), died a broken man in 1852.
bat10 The Portrait Gallery is also showing "Portraits by Brady: Imperial Photographs From the Harvard College Library." The term "imperial" refers not to their poses (though most are rather pompous), but rather to their size. Most are 22 inches high. Their display beside the Frazee show reminds us just how quickly portraiture was changed by the advent of the camera in the mid-19th century. Frazee's subjects look like demigods. Mathew Brady's, in their rumpled and ill-fitting suits, often have the look of power-hungry pols. Brady posed most of these photographs, but did not himself take all of them. They were made between 1856 and the early 1870s. Their large size made them costly: When new they sold for as much as $200. Both portrait exhibitions finely fit the spaces of the Portrait Gallery's old building at Eighth and F streets NW. They close Aug. 24.