Miniature portraitist, painter. One of South Carolina’s most distinguished native artists, Charles Fraser achieved national and international recognition as a miniature portraitist during his lifetime. He was born on August 20, 1782, in Charleston, the son of Alexander Fraser and Mary Grimké. Essentially self-taught, Fraser received early encouragement from his boyhood friend and contemporary Thomas Sully, with whom he shared a love of the theater. Fraser’s only known formal training was at the age of thirteen with the engraver and painter Thomas Coram, who had opened a drawing school in 1784. Under Coram’s supervision, Fraser began several juvenile sketchbooks that include copies after illustrations in travel books by the English artist William Gilpin.
Fraser also enjoyed early friendships with other Charleston artists, including Washington Allston and John Blake White. In 1801 Fraser was introduced to the noted miniature portraitist Edward Greene Malbone, who visited Charleston again in 1802 and 1806 and enjoyed numerous commissions. While a teacher-student relationship remains undocumented, stylistically Fraser’s miniature portraits relate closely to those of Malbone. Their friendship is evidenced by Fraser’s 1806 visit to Newport, Rhode Island, to see Malbone, and by the fact that Fraser composed the epitaph for Malbone’s tomb after his untimely death.
Despite his early interest in art, Fraser was induced to study the law under John Julius Pringle, former attorney general of South Carolina. Admitted to the bar in 1807, Fraser eventually assumed Pringle’s practice. In 1818, however, Fraser abandoned the law to pursue a career as an artist. To mark this transition, Fraser initiated an account book, which he maintained with regularity until 1846.
Fraser spent his entire life in his native Charleston painting miniature portraits of his fellow citizens and visiting dignitaries, including the Marquis de Lafayette and John C. Calhoun. He enjoyed a long and acclaimed career and produced an impressive volume of miniature portraits. A detailed system of stippling was the hallmark of his style, and its handling is often a factor in dating his miniatures. He extended his artistic experiences with numerous trips north to locations such as New York, Boston, Hartford, and Philadelphia, where he met the artists John Trumbull, Gilbert Stuart, and Alvin Fisher. During these trips, Fraser produced watercolor sketches of local scenic sights, many of which were published in Analectic Magazine as early as 1816. While larger oil paintings are part of his work, Fraser often copied from portraits or engravings. Many of his portrait copies have led to the discovery and identification of the earlier originals.
A community leader, Fraser frequently gave speeches at important events, such as the dedication of Magnolia Cemetery in 1850. He was active in the fledgling South Carolina Academy of Fine Arts and became one of its early directors along with Joel Poinsett, John S. Cogdell, and Samuel F. B. Morse. He served as a trustee of the College of Charleston, his alma mater, from 1817 until 1860. In 1853 he delivered his “Reminiscences of Charleston,” which document the major events and cultural changes during his lifetime. In 1857 his patrons and friends honored him with a major retrospective exhibition of his work: 319 miniatures and 139 landscapes, still lifes, and sketches. Fraser died in Charleston on October 5, 1860. The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston is the major repository of his work. See plate 15.
Curtis, Julia. “Redating Sketches from Nature by A. Fraser and C. Fraser.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 93 (January 1992): 51–62.
O’Neall, John Belton. Biographical Sketches of the Bench and Bar of South Carolina. 2 vols. Charleston, S.C.: S. G. Courtney, 1859.
Severens, Martha R., and Charles L. Wyrick, Jr., eds. Charles Fraser of Charleston. Charleston, S.C.: Carolina Art Association, 1983.
———, eds. The Miniature Portrait Collection of the Carolina Art Association. Charleston, S.C.: Carolina Art Association/Gibbes Art Gallery, 1984.
Sokolitz, Roberta Kefalos. The Poetry of Place: Landscapes of Thomas Coram and Charles Fraser. Charleston, S.C.: Carolina Art Association/Gibbes Museum of Art, 1998.