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 John Frazee  (1790 - 1852)

About: John Frazee


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Lived/Active: New York/New Jersey/Rhode Island      Known for: portrait bust and figure sculpture

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"For many historians, the history of American sculpture begins with John Frazee." (Dearinger, 205) He was the first sculptor to be a charter member of the National Academy of Design*, is credited with being a pioneering sculptor of combining Realism* with Neo-Classicism*, and with devising a mechanical invention that transferred an image from a painting to a marble bust.  

Although influenced by Neo-Classical styles of Giuseppe Ceracchi (in America between 1791 and 1795) and Enrico Causici (in America from 1822 into the 1830s), Frazee sculpted realistic, not idealized features. His bust, John Jay (1831, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.) was the first government commission of its type given to a native-born sculptor, and his Chief Justice John Marshall (1834, Boston Athenaeum) combine a naturalistic head with a toga-covered upper torso. His portrait bust of John Wells (1824, St. Paul's Chapel, New York City is considered to be the first carved bust made by an American.

John Frazee was born in Rahway, New Jersey in 1790. With no formal art schools in America, he lacked the advantage of formal instruction, so used his own ingenuity to launch a career as a sculptor.  In 1804, he was apprenticed to a bricklayer, and his first sculptures date from about 1808. In 1815, he did his first idealized figure carving, an image of Grief placed at his son's grave. In 1818, he opened a marble shop in New York City and specialized in funeral sculpture.

In 1824, Frazee became a member of the American Academy* in New York City, and with the Academy's help, garnered a commission to do a portrait bust of the Marquis de Lafayette.  However, Frazee became disillusioned with the lack of reform and change in the Academy and along with a handful of other members including Henry Inman and Samuel Morse, founded the National Academy of Design* in 1826.  However, Frazee never became a part of the artist group that oversaw the Academy because he focused almost exclusively on his own productivity, which included enrollment in the National Academy's antique class.  He exhibited only in the Academy exhibitions of 1832, 1834 and 1841, but was not elected an Academician* because of violation of the Academy rules that negated that status for members who failed to exhibit two consecutive years.

Through the 1820s and 1830s, Frazee's reputation had grown steadily. He and fellow sculptor, Robert Launitz, formed a partnership that lasted until 1837, and commissions included a series of famous American portraits from the Boston Athenaeum*.  In 1834, Frazee was appointed superintending architect for the incompleted United States Customs House in New York City. Using the original plans, he re-worked the design, especially revising the interior.  This project was finished in 1841.

In 1843, he was appointed New York customs inspector, which provided steady income but which diverted him from individual sculpture projects. Frazee spent his later years designing a huge monument for George Washington for New York City, but with his declining health, it was never finished.

John Frazee died in 1852 in Crompton Mills, Rhode Island.

David Dearinger, Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design, 1826-1925

Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
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