By Brian J. Martin
September 7, 2016
Did you know? The same artist sculpted the statue of Alexander Hamilton in front of the U.S. Treasury building in Washington, D.C., and the Buffalo Nickel first introduced in 1913. Did you know, also, that this artist’s wife designed the first commemorative coin produced by the Denver Mint two decades later?
James Earle Fraser and his wife Laura Gardin Fraser were prolific American artists during the first half of the 20th Century.
According to Syracuse University—which houses 40 boxes of the Frasers’ records, including designs, reproductions and memorabilia—James made considerable contributions to the history of American art by fulfilling commissions for the U.S. Treasury, U.S. Navy, National Archives, U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Supreme Court.
As a child, James followed his father (a railroad engineer and contractor) to South Dakota in 1877. Fraser’s time on the prairies during America’s westward expansion inspired much of his later art, such as the famous End of the Trail sculpture.
The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum says this about Fraser’s upbringing in the Dakotas:
“There [Fraser] had unique encounters with pioneers, hunters and fur trappers, and he befriended many of the Plains Natives. He … sympathized with their suffering as westward expansion threatened to consume their lands. The experience of watching a young man in Mitchell carve chalkstone into different forms encouraged Fraser to begin sculpting. He later acknowledged that this significantly influenced his art career.”
James is connected to the history of the Mint in ways other than just the Buffalo Nickel, though, as he worked for years with famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Laura Gardin Fraser, who was an art student studying under James before they married, was a successful sculptor in her own right. She sculpted coins, medals and statues for the United States military, the National Geographic Society and the city of Baltimore. For the Mint, Laura designed a variety of products besides the Oregon Trail coin, including the 1921 Alabama Centennial, 1922 Grant Centennial and the 1930 Charles Lindberg Congressional Gold Medal.
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