HE PERFECTED his craft by carving tombstones. But while his beginnings were humble, John Frazee, sculptor, was not.

"I do not feel as if I were working for the present age," he said.

And though in 1831 he was the first American-born sculptor to receive a federal commission, he complained bitterly about the fee: $400, for a portrait bust to be installed in the Capitol, of the first Chief Justice, John Jay.

Now unveiled at the Portrait Gallery is the first exhibit of Frazee's sculpture to be held since his death in 1852.

He wasn't working for this age, either.

A romantic given to neoclassical excess, he carved a good likeness in marble of his subject, but covered the shoulders of the bust with heroic drapery. It was sculpture for patrons who would picture themselves members of the Roman Senate. The busts look like something one would find in a place called an athenaeum, and in fact Frazee's major patron was the Boston Athenaeum, which helped to organize the current show.

Austere, august, it was Frazee's marble sculpture that the partners of New York banker Nathaniel Prime commissioned in 1832 on his retirement, instead of a gold watch. The market for such portrait busts was highly competitive, and perhaps because he lacked European training, Frazee was unable to make his living from sculpting commissions. One way he diversified was to become supervising architect for the New York Custom House.

The portrait bust was one way of seeking immortality.

From the Frazee show, continue on into the adjoining gallery for another, in "Portraits by Mathew Brady: Imperial Photographs from the Harvard College Library." In the 1850s, the privileged class sought to immortalize itself in large portrait photographs. Photos from the Brady studios in New York and Washington, D.C., were la creme de la creme.

In this exhibit, limned large on 17"x22" paper, are philanthropists, artists, statesmen, lawyers, clergymen and military officers -- notable among them, Frederic E. Church, poet William Cullen Bryant, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Jefferson Davis.

The large images were printed on sensitized paper in direct contact with large glass-plate negatives. There was no shutter to open, just a lens cap to remove. And although Brady himself didn't use the camera, he often posed the sitters.

Obviously, he preferred them with one hand tucked into the vest.

JOHN FRAZEE, SCULPTOR -- At the Portrait Gallery through August 24.