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  Senate Vice Presidential Bust Collection

 Theodore Roosevelt
(1910) by James Earle Fraser
 Theodore Roosevelt 

Having succeeded to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt was elected president in his own right in 1904. Early in his second presidential term, he was asked to select a sculptor for his bust for the Senate’s Vice Presidential Bust Collection. “If St. Gaudens would do it I should be glad to have him,” wrote the president. The famous sculptor’s fee of $5,000, however, was far too high for the government commission. Though Saint-Gaudens had already carved two busts for the U.S. Capitol many years before (Chester A. Arthur, and Roger B. Taney), he did not now need the work or the Senate’s low standard fee of $800.

In a 1905 letter to President Roosevelt, Saint-Gaudens recommended his former studio assistant, James Earle Fraser, as a worthy substitute, noting that his work was “equal to the best things of the Renaissance.” Senator George Peabody Wetmore, chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, offered Fraser the commission in 1906, and the sculptor accepted.

Fraser had learned much from his master’s great achievements in portraiture, and this training, combined with a lifelong passion for the heroism and pathos of the American frontier, prepared him perfectly for the Roosevelt commission. The bust became his most famous portrait, even though for the final marble he was obliged to execute the less animated of his two life studies. He had worked to capture the characteristically aggressive stance of the president, but Roosevelt is reported to have said that he wished to “go down in posterity as a man of repose.” [1] Whether for that reason, or because the more animated bust might have seemed out of place among the generally placid troop of marble vice presidents, the more formal pose was executed. The approved marble bust was delivered to the Capitol in 1910; it stood briefly in the Senate Chamber and then was placed in the main corridor of the Senate wing in conjunction with a chronological rearrangement.

Fraser’s bust of Roosevelt is genial, if somewhat introspective. The massive head and bull neck are faithfully reproduced but not pugnacious. Although the inclusion of eyeglasses in sculpture is a problematic decision–they can date the work and they present illusionistic difficulties–the viewer may miss TR’s familiar spectacles. In his unpublished autobiography, Fraser explains the decision: During the first sitting in the East Room of the White House, he recalls, the president “told me exactly how he wanted to have it done. He was not to wear glasses.” [2] Yet, without glasses, Roosevelt’s eyes seem small in the massive head.

That said, this is a bust that–rather remarkably–suggests a full-length figure. There is an indication of a striding pose in that the cropped sleeves are not parallel: Roosevelt’s right arm advances slightly, while the left markedly recedes. This suggestion of torsion is reinforced by the right coat lapel, which is pushed into a roll by the advancing arm. The bust is mostly presented frontally, and the relative symmetry is stressed by the double-breasted vest and the heavy, drooping moustache. There is a suppression of detail in the costume (the tie, for instance, is a faint shallow outline). Likewise, Roosevelt’s hair lacks detail, which only enhances the bold effect of the over-life-size torso and head. Finally, it may be that Fraser’s most interesting and expressive artistic statement was his decision not to polish the marble. The rough finish seems fitting for the one-time Rough Rider.

Fraser, who taught at New York’s Art Students League during the period in which he sculpted Roosevelt for the Senate, made a specialty of the subject. Examples include a bronze bust of the Rough Rider in the collections of the White House and the Forest Lawn Museum in California, an adventuring-equestrian Roosevelt fronting the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and a miniature bronze portrait issued in an edition of 12. He even took Roosevelt’s death mask. Originally a westerner, Fraser was perhaps best known in the popular mind for his mounted Native American figure, End of the Trail, and for designing the “Buffalo” nickel. His bust of John Nance Garner is in the Senate’s Vice Presidential Bust Collection, and three relief sculptures by his wife, Laura Gardin Fraser, are located in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol.

1. ”New Bust of Roosevelt,” Washington Post, 11 March 1910.

2.James Earle Fraser, “Sculpting T.R.,” American Heritage, April 1972, 97.

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