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“A Naïve and Self-Taught Artist”: John Frazee Sculpts Daniel Webster, 1833

by John Frazee

Many artists working in the decades after the American Revolution came from the ranks of artisans and mechanics. In a republic that dispensed with aristocratic patrons and royal academies, art came to be supported by a middling populace more interested in portraits than grand history painting. Sculpture in marble, time consuming and expensive, was even more remote than paints, and the new nation lacked grand palaces or mansions for display. John Frazee, born in Rahway, New Jersey in 1790, lacked the benefit of formal instruction but still progressed from carving lettering on gravestones to fashioning busts of the rich and famous. Without formal knowledge or the constraints of European customs, American-born and trained artist-artisans such as Frazee resorted to indigenous and ingenious solutions to the problems they faced in a commercializing society, such as Frazee’s mechanical invention to transfer an image from painting to a marble bust.

In the new establishment in New York, it was the object of myself and my brother, with whom I was in partnership, to prosecute the monument and mantelpiece business together; but we were obliged to put it in operation on a small scale, suited to our little capital. I knew, from what I had seen and examined, in my occasional visits, that it would require no mighty struggle with me to compete with the tombstone cutters of New York, although the chief artists among them, at that time, vaunted themselves as unrivaled champions from the celebrated workshops of Europe.

My style of lettering put them all to shame. The very first epitaph I cut, brought them staring from every shop in the city; and I soon learnt from rumour that their ranks were in a state of discomfiture. And yet, it was a plain gravestone, with but very few letters upon it, that made so great a stir among the craft; but these letters were arranged with taste; were well proportioned and engraved. They had abundant cause for alarm: for it was not many months before my work in this department attracted general notice, and a marked attention among artists, connoisseurs, and gentlemen of taste; while an unexpected supply of orders upon file proved that the fears of my competitors were not wholly groundless, nor my merits left unappreciated. Not my lettering alone, but my sepulchral and mantelpiece carvings elicited praise, even from those who envied my success./p>

I had yet- never seen the inside of the academy, and, therefore, knew very little of the higher branch of sculpture; nor did I, at this time, make the least pretension to the nobler art. I was, however, deeply in love with monumental sculpture and engraving of letters; and no man ever studied more to bring an art to perfection, than I did that of letter-cutting. My application was intense beyond comparison.

For several years, I worked from thirteen to fifteen hours the day, throughout the whole year, and my Sundays were, for the most of the time, employed in reading, writing, and sketching. I believe that I brought the art of forming letters to a higher perfection, than has been done by any other man. But I do not now devote my time to letter-cutting, further than to instruct the boys. The truth is, I have used up too much of my time in that branch, more, I think, than its importance demanded. And yet, when I reflect upon the miserable condition of that branch of the arts, at the time I commenced business in New York, and compare it with its present improved and cultivated character, I certainly feel an inward joy in the thought that, independent of all pecuniary gain, my labours have contributed to raise this beautiful, although accessary art, to an elevated standard of taste.

In this reformation, my hardest warfare was with myself, in combating my own wild and eccentric notions, oddities and whims: plagues as consequent, I believe, upon self taught art, as form is to substance. My object at first was to reach perfection in the formation and style of every kind of letter in modern use, without a thought upon the propriety or impropriety of an adaptation, as applied to epitaph. This was folly; and yet the field, in which so much experience and experimental toil were sown, has yielded me a harvest that richly compensates my trouble. My chief business has always been in monuments for the dead; and, where statuary sculpture forms its principal features, I know of no branch of art that is so deeply interesting to civilized man. Or that more enduringly impresses the human heart.

But, as yet the monuments in this country are generally of small dimensions, having little sculpture of any importance attached to them. I have made a great many since, which have been enriched with a variety of small ornaments. Some of my mural monuments, erected in the different churches in New York and elsewhere, have been admired for their beauty and workmanship; yet to me, now, they seem hardly of sufficient importance to claim any particular notice. I have erected several cenotaphs of this kind upon the interior walls of Trinity Church.

I have one also upon the right of the pulpit in the church in Murray Street, in memory of James Thomson. On this is a wreath of ivy and flowers. Several monuments of this kind have been erected by me in St Mark’s church, and one in Market Street church, in memory of the late venerable Colonel Rutgers. But of this kind of monument, the one in Grace Church, to John Wells Esq. may be ranked foremost, as it is surmounted with a bust of Mr Wells; the first bust I ever made in marble, and the first ever modeled and executed in marble by a native American. This bust was executed in the early part of the year 1825.

In the year 1820, I made a model in clay of my little son, three years old. It was in the early part of summer, when I was unwell; and lingering about the house. I took it into my head to model this child, his entire figure and likeness. It was that which opened an introduction for me to the old Academy. My family physician mentioned it to Mr John K. Murray, who (hereupon called immediately to see both the model and its maker. Mr Murray expressed himself as highly delighted with my model and other works, and begged permission to introduce me and my works to Colonel Trumbull, the president of the Academy of Fine Arts: to which I cheerfully consented, and went forthwith with Mr Murray to the Academy, for the first time in my life.

The few paintings, which were there at the time, did not distress me, although the two great paintings of West, from Shakespeare, hung upon the wall; but when I entered the saloon of antique statues, what could describe my feelings at that instant! Even at this very moment I feel the sensation thrilling through me. I stood staring like a statue; while Mr Murray endeavoured to hurry me along from one group to another, from this statue to that, giving vivid descriptions of everything. He scarcely gave me time to collect my senses sufficiently for a calm survey of the great and sublime works before me, so anxious was he to fill my unacquainted soul with knowledge.

Colonel Trumbull was not there, as was expected, so I was not introduced to him. But it was not many days after when the president called at my shop, by request, as he said, of Mr Murray. I showed him what I had done, which seemed to please the old gentleman much, and drew from him the language of gratulations, at my success; though he at the same time stated that he thought it a game of chance, for me or any other artist, to think of accomplishing anything in sculpture in this country, for a century yet to come!—that, in his sincere opinion, “there would be little or nothing wanted in this branch of art, and no encouragement given to it in this country, for yet a hundred years!” These are his very words, uttered during the first interview I had with him.

Que pensez vous de cela? In truth, I never held a conversation with Colonel Trumbull upon the rise and progress of the line arts in our country, in which he did not express himself regarding them, in terms the most cold and discouraging. It was on the merits of my model, and my plaster bust of La Fayette, made in 1824, that I obtained a commission to execute in marble the bust of Mr Wells. I was not without some fearful bodings, on commencing this work. The difficulties that confronted me were manifold-; some of which were totally insurmountable. This I well knew at the commencement; and so did my employers, else I never would have touched the work.

I never knew Mr Wells, and the portrait, from which I was to model the bust, had been painted after his death, from memory chiefly, by Waldo. With such materials, success in the likeness would have been a miracle. Moreover, this was my first attempt to model from a painting, a process in which complete success is scarcely attainable, under the most favourable circumstances. My trial, therefore, was a severe one. It being a work of deep interest on all sides, the family of the deceased, his numerous relatives and friends, together with my employers, the members of the New York Bar, were all looking on, on the one side; on the other stood myself, fearful and trembling, yet firm and resolved. I had declared I would do it, and could not, dared not shrink from my pledge.

Help for the work I had not, and I had passed to an age which, with my national pride, could not admit of my seeking aid from any foreign artist upon our shores; so I determined to put forth all my energies and powers, and breast the dangers alone, fully confiding in the auspices of kind Heaven for a favourable result. My model was successful, above the highest expectations of all the parties. But now my wits were put to work for some correct mechanical method by which I might transfer the bust safely into the marble. I knew nothing of the Italian mode of taking points, by the Rule of Three, as they call it, nor of any rule whatever for transferring, and I conceived it too hazardous to attempt copying by the eye only.

Thus situated, I had no resource but that of invention; so I immediately set to work in contriving a machine. It was a very simple contrivance that 1 brought to light; but much superior, in my opinion, both for truth and facility in taking the points, to any other method I have ever seen or heard of. It moves upon a circle, inside of which the marble is placed; the model is also placed within another circle of precisely the same dimensions as the first. In an upright post is a slide which moves up and down at pleasure. The point is fixed upon this slide, and is moveable like a screw, out and in; and the post is made so as to ply truly around the circle. The monument to John Wells, or his bust, the progress of which I have just been describing, displays sonic of my sculpture, independent of the bust.—The whole cost one thousand dollars. My compositions in sculpture have been so limited in number, and of such commonplace interest, that I feel no inclination to speak of them. They consist chiefly of little things, in basso-relief, upon chimneypieces and monuments.

At the instance of my friend, Mr G. C. Verplanck, Congress, in 1831, appropriated five hundred dollars for a bust of Chief Justice Jay. In 1833, Messrs Prime, Ward, King & Co. gave me an order to execute the bust of Mr Nathaniel Prime. This opened my way to Boston; it having been seen while in progress, by Mr Thomas W. Ward, of that city, while on a visit here. Immediately on his return to Boston, he proposed to his friends to have the busts of Daniel Webster and Dr Bowditch executed by me for the Athenaeum; and I was sent for immediately to proceed to Boston and take the models. Away I went, and soon found myself in the society of great and distinguished men.

This was in October, 1833. When I arrived at Boston, and found Mr Ward, he straightway took me to the house of Dr Bowditch where 1 was soon introduced to this great astronomer and mathematician. I found the Doctor in fine health and spirits. He had not before, it seems, been apprized that I was a native artist; but, from the orthography and sound of my name, he had believed that I was a sculptor of some considerable celebrity from either France or Italy; and when we came to converse upon the object of my mission and I was revealed to him as a native and self-taught artist, who had never trod a foreign soil, he began to show symptoms of uneasiness, and the many interrogatories he put to me, concerning what works I had done and with what success, clearly betraying the anxiety of his mind. I saw plainly that he was fearful of being caught in the hands of a Charlatan whose unworthy chisel never sought integrity, and whose marble would be an enduring libel upon his finely formed head and features.

Misgivings like these were not calculated to cheer the mind of an artist—a stranger, too, after being called a distance of two hundred and fifty miles from Ins home upon an engagement like mine. Still, I could not say that the Doctor’s inquiries were by any means improper; and he made them, I am sure, with feelings of much delicacy and reserve. But it wounded my pride to be obliged to speak publicly for myself, and of my own works and their merits; and, indeed I said little in reply to his questions, except to state the leading facts as to the number of busts I had made, leaving their merits to be discussed by my employer Mr Ward, who assured the Doctor that those of my works he had seen and examined gave him the fullest confidence in my abilities and competency as a sculptor. This seemed to reconcile the old gentleman, and brighten up his countenance with a more cheering and confiding aspect. In less than a week from this time I had modelled the Doctor’s head in clay, to the entire satisfaction of himself and his friends.

Mr Webster was now called upon to sit for his bust, which was completed with equal success and approbation. In commencing with Mr Webster, I found him extremely solicitous in regard to the likeness. He said he hoped I might obtain a good likeness, which had never been accomplished yet, in his own opinion, either by painters or sculptors; all that had hitherto been taken of him, he said, excepting the one by Stuart, were complete caricatures, and the model of him in wax, by Hughes, was of the same stamp. He added, “I am the more anxious that you should succeed with the likeness, because this is the last lime 1 ever intend to sit for my portrait, to any one.”

I replied, that I had no fears of being able to do ample justice to the work, and on we went very cheerfully together until the third sitting, when he made use of a few expressions which did, not please me. The truth is his face is a peculiar one, and remarkably different when the muscles are in repose, from what it is when under the influence of inward emotion. To give myself full time, therefore, to study the best expressions which played around the mouth and changeable muscles of the face, I did not in the first sittings hasten to bring out these parts, but kept them back while I worked up the cranium and less flexible parts of the head. This course gave nothing very promising as to the portrait of the face, even to the third sitting. Mr Webster entered my room this morning stood, while I was preparing some clay at the other end of the room.“Well,” said he in a low tone, as if talking with himself, “I can see no likeness there, I am afraid it is going to follow in the track of all the rest.”

He then took his seat for the work, as usual. I distinctly heard every word, and felt somewhat touched that he should have expressed his opinion so prematurely, and, as I thought, invidiously. I walked up to my work, and, as I began to model, thus addressed him. "Now, Sir, there is one thing about this work which, to insure success, requires our mutual good faith and exercise, that is—we must endeavour to keep cool! If, Sir, we but keep cool, there will be no sort of difficulty in this business, and success is sure. "

While uttering these words, I could discover by the flashing of his great dark eyes and the play of his lips, that he understood me, that we might pass receipts ; and the moment I paused, he broke out very good-humouredly in reply thus,— "O, I’ll keep cool! I’ll keep cool! if that will do it; I 'll be cool as a cucumber, Sir, “—and the joke passed off with a hearty laugh between us. I had no further trouble. The last sitting he gave was, at my request, by candlelight. He had been seated awhile, when I observed to him how much 1 regretted my misfortune in never having seen him in public debate—that could I have once seen him delivering a speech in the Senate Chamber upon some important topic, it would have enabled me to delineate with greater force the higher mental qualities. To this he quickly replied— ”If that, Mr Frazee, will be of any service to you, I can go through the business for you here right off. I can show you how we do business down yonder." I said it would oblige me very much, when he immediately arose and commenced: first, by stating the preliminaries by the clerk, on the opening of the Senate, and then the services of the chaplain, personating himself as he usually stands during prayer. “Now,” says he, “it is my turn to speak.” He then put himself in a most grave and dignified attitude, looking as if he really saw the president of the Senate before him; then, compressing his keen lips a moment, he began—“ Mr President,” and went on in a very animated and impressive speech for a quarter of an hour, I working with my might, the while, in the clay, to catch, flying as it were, the vivid and more noble traits as they flushed upon his strong features. It was well done; and the inspiration of that hour lives, and may it long live, in the marble of Daniel Webster.

See Frazee’s 1834 letter about his railroad ride, one of the first in the United States, at http://www.aaa.si.edu/guides/curators-picture/index.cfm/fuseaction/items.detailItem/ItemID/3369/heading/F/personid/2033

Source: John Frazee, “The Autobiography of Frazee, the Sculptor,” North American Quarterly Magazine 6 (July 1835), 16–20