Who was the first American sculptor to receive a Federal Commission for work?

00006849March 2, 1831 — John Frazee (1790-1854) was the first sculptor in the US to receive patronage from the federal government for his work on the New York Custom House, which is now the Federal Hall National Memorial. He is best known for his design of busts of notable American public figures, including John Wells, John Jay, John Marshall, and Daniel Webster.

Despite this achievement, Frazee’s work was forgotten for many years until a recent show of his work at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.

Born in Rahway, New Jersey in 1790, Frazee began his career as a bricklayer. He lost a young son in 1815 and carved a memorial sculpture to commemorate his son’s life. In 1818 he started a marble workshop in New York City specializing in memorials and grave markers. Sadly, many of Frazee’s monuments were completed for deceased family members including his first wife Jane and several children. His reputation grew and he was well known for tasteful, simple, and well-executed memorials. Frazee began to receive private commissions for monuments and cenotaphs throughout New York. Frazee did not have formal training and developed a realistic style of carving that was heavily influenced by the neoclassical style.

By the mid 1820s, Frazee began to receive public commissions to carve busts of famous Americans. His bust of John Wells is considered to be the first carved marble bust made by an American born sculptor. In 1831, he received a Congressional commission to sculpt a bust of John Jay. Later, Frazee sculpted busts of Chief Justice John Marshall, Daniel Webster and others for the Boston Athenaeum.

After achieving considerable recognition for his sculpting abilities, President John Tyler appointed Frazee as the designer of the New York Customs House. He oversaw construction from 1834-1840. It is likely that Frazee created many of the decorative sculptural elements within the building as well. John Frazee died in 1854 in Rhode Island.

Sources: aaa.si.edu, ushistory.org