High-Relief Profile Bust of James Madison
John Frazee began his career as a stonecutter and, by sheer determination and innate talent, became a sculptor, starting about 1824.1Voss is the standard study on Frazee. At that time, New York City offered little in the way of instruction for an aspiring young sculptor, and Frazee never went to Italy to study. Virtually the only sculpture then being done in America, aside from the wood carvings by William Rush, was the work of Italians who had come over to execute sculptures for the new United States Capitol and other buildings.
Frazee always bristled at so many commissions going to foreign artists while America ignored her own native talent and his in particular. He was especially delighted, therefore, when Congress appropriated the funds “For employing John Frazee to execute a bust of John Jay for the Supreme Court room, four hundred dollars.”2Record of the Twenty-First Congress, chap. 70, “An Act making appropriations for the public buildings, and for other purposes.” The sculptor replied to Mr. Elgar of the Commission on Public Buildings, in a letter dated March 30, 1831: “This is, I believe, the first instance where our Government has . . . bestowed its patronage on an American genius, in this department of the arts [sculpture].”3John Frazee to Joseph Elgar, March 30, 1831. RG 42, NARA, Reel 121, Frame 820. Frazee was correct: the Congressional commission for Horatio Greenough’s statue of George Washington is sometimes cited as the first such act of patronage, but the appropriation for Frazee’s Jay preceded it.
Since John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States, had died in 1829, Frazee could not model his bust from life. Instead, he based his work on a terracotta bust executed in 1792 in New York by Giuseppe Ceracchi (see Acc. No. 63.1). One version of Ceracchi’s portrait is in the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, and another is owned by The New-York Historical Society. Ceracchi’s work is richly and crisply modeled, with the head turned slightly to the viewer’s left. Its classical, togalike drapery has a nearly vertical fall of folds over the right shoulder and a diagonal sweep of folds across the chest. The eyes are given focus and liveliness by incised pupils. The bust owned by the Department of State, however, while surely based on Ceracchi’s work, is of a different type in detail and general form.
Frazee’s modeling of the facial features, hair, and the fabric of the drapery is softer than Ceracchi’s. The head is set frontally, not turned at a slight angle, and the American artist followed good Roman precedent in not incising the pupils of the eyes. The drapery is conceived in a manner entirely different from the Ceracchi example, with generally circular and concentric folds across the chest and the vertical portion falling over Jay’s left shoulder rather than the right.
How Frazee gained access to Ceracchi’s bust is unknown. An undated clipping from an unidentified newspaper of about 1832 reported that Frazee “has been indebted for the likeness to the bust of Jay by Ceracchi, but the composition and accessories are his own.”4Family papers of Stephen Millett, a Frazee descendant, with copies in the Curatorial Files, Diplomatic Reception Rooms. In any case, Frazee set about creating an original vision of Jay, for he would have been too proud to copy slavishly the work of a foreign artist.5Letter, Frederick Voss to Clement E. Conger, June 11, 1984, Curatorial Files, Diplomatic Reception Rooms.
The sculptor exhibited his bust of Jay (or more likely, a cast of the original) at the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition in 1832, and the work received rave notices from Boston to Washington. The original marble was sent to Washington to be installed in the Capitol, where it may still be seen today. Probably not long afterward, the sculptor carved a second marble version for the Jay family, one that descended through the family until 1976, when it came into the Collection. It is especially fitting to have this portrait in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms because John Jay served from 1784 to 1789 as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, the position that became Secretary of State in 1790.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.