Sculpting T.R.

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In December, 1968, we printed “A Dakota Boyhood,” a warm, sensitive appreciation of childhood taken from an unpublished autobiography of the popular American sculptor James Earle Fraser. Fraser, the designer of our familiar buffalo nickel, died in 1953. His autobiography was discovered among his papers, subsequently presented to Syracuse University.

As well as reminiscing about his boyhood, Fraser also wrote in his autobiography about his work and his subjects. One of the most intriguing of those subjects was President Theodore Roosevelt, who had picked Fraser in a somewhat circuitous way to do his portrait. Fraser had worked as assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens when that famous sculptor was at the peak of his career. When Roosevelt, in 1904, wanted a portrait bust done for the Capitol, he asked Saint-Gaudens to sculpt it. But Saint-Gaudens was ill, and he recommended his ex-assistant in his stead. Fraser, then twenty-eight, was honored, elated, and a bit awed. As this account will show, it was an experience he would never forget.

In a few days I received a letter from President Theodore Roosevelt, from the White House, asking me if I would make the portrait. I replied that I would be delighted to do it, and an appointment was made to see the President. I was to see him at nine o’clock in the evening. What a great thrill it was for me to go to the White House at the request of the President. I waited a few minutes in the great hall, and soon the President came running downstairs. I had previously written to him saying that I would like to take one or two measurements so that I could make a start on the portrait to save his time. I wanted also to get a preliminary glimpse of the President. When he came down the stairs and greeted me he said, “So you are Mr. Fraser. I had expected an older man, but if Saint-Gaudens said you can do the portrait, you are going to do it. You know a man must depend on his friends, and I would depend on Saint-Gaudens’ advice for anything in the world of Art. I have known him for a long time; as a matter of fact, when I was Police Commissioner of New York I often dropped in to his studio on Thirty-Sixth Street and enjoyed seeing his work.” This was told me in rather a high staccato voice. The President was powerfully built and rather stout at this period. Later, as a matter of fact, he told me he boxed very often with a former middle-weight champion of the world—Mike Donovan. I think his age was in the early forties. At that interview he made arrangements for me to come to the White House at eight o’clock in the morning and set my work up in the East room where the light was excellent. Next morning I had placed my modelling stand in front of the center window, and was ready for the President by fifteen minutes after eight, and he came in before the half hour.

I started the portrait then, and he told me exactly how he wanted to have it done. He was not to wear glasses, and his head was to be thrown well back. I started the portrait in that fashion and worked for about three-quarters of an hour when he said he would have to leave to meet his appointments, but that he would be back in the afternoon after five o’clock, and I could have another half hour. Meanwhile I worked from memory until it was necessary to put away my model and various things that I had brought for my work. The White House, you see, is opened for visitors at ten o’clock in the morning.

I came back again that afternoon, and the President was on time; and again we worked, but I found that the President’s expression without glasses was entirely different than his expression with glasses, and we had quite a discussion about that difficulty. Finally he agreed to put on his glasses, which aided my making the portrait much better in expression. He asked me to come the next morning, and I was there at eight o’clock. I had a fair start on the portrait but with the head lifted. Much to my surprise he came in about nine o’clock with his Cabinet, and chairs were placed around in front of him, and I necessarily had to work with my back to the Cabinet Members. I cannot recall all the Members, but I know that Elihu Root, William Howard Taft, and two or three others whose names escape me for the moment were there. A running conversation on all subjects was going on and it was impossible for me to keep the President in the position that he had thought would be good. …

Finally I said, “Mr. President, I would like to make a change in the gesture of the portrait. I think it would be much more characteristic. I will know also whether you and any of the Cabinet Members would be interested in the change.” As a matter of fact, when he tried to drive home any point that he had to make during the conversation, he leaned sharply forward with his chin protruded in an aggressive manner. When I had changed it to the attitude that gave those characteristics, the Cabinet Members liked it much better, and the President said, “By George, that is good!” and from that moment I went on with the new gesture. I had found it extremely difficult to remain relaxed on the first two or three sittings, never having made a portrait of a President before, or as a matter of fact, anyone of great importance, except Saint-Gaudens… and at that time I didn’t have the Presidential Cabinet back of me, watching my every move.