James Earle Fraser, one of the most highly respected American sculptors of the early 20th century, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the École des Béaux-Arts in Paris. He became an apprentice and assistant to the renowned Augustus Saint-Gaudens, initially in Paris and later in Cornish, New Hampshire. Fraser subsequently established a studio in New York City, where he began a prolific career creating medallion reliefs, allegorical sculpture, and statues of prominent Americans. One of the artist’s earliest and best-known works, The End of the Trail, depicts an exhausted Native American warrior on his mount. Other major pieces include sculptures of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as reliefs for the American “Buffalo” nickel-a bison on one side and a Native American profile on the other. In the U.S. Capitol, Fraser’s busts of Theodore Roosevelt and John Nance Garner are in the Senate’s Vice Presidential Bust Collection, and three plaster reliefs by his sculptor-wife, Laura Gardin Fraser, are located in the House Chamber.
More than 25 years after he sculpted Theodore Roosevelt for the Vice Presidential Bust Collection, Fraser was selected to execute a bust of Vice President John Nance Garner. The vice president sat for Fraser during 1937 and 1938. Fraser was selected for the commission because he usually worked quickly and required few sittings, but it was 1943 before the artist finally submitted his work for Senate approval. Fraser initially executed two preparatory plaster busts for consideration. According to the artist, the vice president liked “the quiet one,” while Fraser and his artist friends preferred the second version. Fraser wrote to Architect of the Capitol David Lynn: “I believe you also liked the one I like. Is there any reason why I should not take the one I prefer?” While Lynn’s decision is unknown, a choice was made between these two versions in 1941, and Fraser signed a contract for $1,000 to supply the finished marble. More than two years passed before the completed bust arrived at the Capitol. The sculptor blamed the delay on the press of other work and on the difficulty of locating superior marble cutters during war time. Among other projects then claiming his attention were two mammoth outdoor groups commissioned for the entrance to Rock Creek Parkway near Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.