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History of Early American Landscape Design

Charles Fraser

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Charles Fraser (August 20, 1782-October 5, 1860) was an American-born painter of Scottish descent who depicted people and places associated with his native Charleston, South Carolina.


Until the age of 36, Fraser vacillated between the legal career his family encouraged him to pursue and his natural inclination toward art. He began his study of law in 1798 in the office of John Julius Pringle, Attorney General of South Carolina, and continued to practice until 1817 when he abandoned the profession in order to commit himself to an artistic career. [1] Fraser had already established himself as a talented and prolific amateur, having produced numerous miniature portraits of friends and family, as well as watercolor depictions of buildings and scenery in and around Charleston. His style was formed during the mid-1790s under the tutelage of the view painter and engraver Thomas Coram, who reportedly set him to copy European prints and the illustrations in British travel guidebooks. Fraser, like Coram, was highly influenced by the the picturesque aesthetic conventions popularized by the British writer William Gilpin, and he became one of the first artists to adapt picturesque models to the distinctive architecture and landscape of the American South. [2] A sketchbook begun in 1796 and completed in 1806 contains both Fraser’s copies of European prints as well as his original depictions of local scenes with which he had a personal connection, such as Pringle’s new plantation house on the Ashley River [Fig. __] and Brabant, the country “seat” of Fraser’s former schoolmaster, Rev. Robert Smith [Fig. __]. [3] The sketchbook also contains precisely delineated portraits of the country seats established by Fraser’s siblings, including those near Goosecreek on land that had originally formed part of the family plantation, Wigton (named for their ancestral home in Scotland) [Fig. __]. [4] Although these house portraits were clearly influenced by the European prints Fraser collected — which included representations of stately English manor houses as well as engravings after the atmospheric landscapes of the seventeenth-century painters Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorraine — Fraser’s depictions of Charleston plantations also reveal great specificity in their depiction of terrain, botanical specimens, and architectural detail. < ref> Severens, 78, 84-85. </ref> In 1806 Fraser ventured further afield, making the first of several trips up the eastern seaboard, traveling as far north as Boston. [5] Painterly descriptions of landscape scenery recur in his letters home. Of northern Connecticut, he observed, “The scenery around there is very wild and Picturesque — hills of immense height — broken rocks, etc. make it one of the most striking scenes I ever beheld.” [6] In 1816 Fraser sold “twenty very beautiful drawings of scenes, in different parts of the United States” to ‘’The Analectic Magazine’’, which published eight engravings after his sketches from1816 and 1818. [7] After embarking on his professional artistic career in 1817, Fraser had initially focused on portraiture, producing an estimated 400 portraits of Charlestonians in meticulously rendered miniatures. During the 1830s his patrons’ dwindling interest in painted portraits, the emergence of an American landscape tradition, and his own deteriorating eyesight caused Fraser to shift his attention back to landscapes. Along with watercolor, he also began working in oils, depicting actual locations in the northeast as well as imagined European scenes, and copies after engravings.[8] He served as a trustee of the College of Charleston (1817-1860) and director of the South Carolina Academy of Fine Arts (1821-1828).

Over 300 miniature portraits and 150 sketches of landscape and other subjects landscapes were assembled in an exhibition organized by the Rev. Samuel and Caroline Gilman in Charleston in February and March 1857 [9] 

In the Charleston of his day, Fraser was as well known for his orations, literary pursuits, cultural authority and civic engagement as he was for his art, and, towards the end of his life, was lauded as the city’s most beloved artist. In February 1857, a group of Charleston gentlemen assembled a retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work staged as The Fraser Gallery. While the first section of the display featured Fraser’s miniatures, the second offered “landscapes and other pieces.” Contemporary reports recall the artist’s turns about the South Carolina Society Hall, where, “leaning on the arm of a young companion, or old friend … [he] walked around the gallery, calling up reminiscences of his artist life, criticising his own pictures, and as they loomed up through the long area, pausing with a dreamy wonder, as if he were in some enchanted vision.”

In 1853, at the age of 71, Fraser presented his recollections of Charleston in a lecture delivered to the Conversation Club, subsequently published in the Charleston Courier and then revised and expanded as Reminiscences of Charleston (1854). [10] Fraser traced the city’s development from the early 1790s, when it was sparsely populated and “completely surrounded with remains of its old revolutionary fortifications,” (21) to the early nineteenth century, when newly erected residences, gardens, and greens redefined the topography. Among “the public improvements and embellishments” noted by Fraser was City Square, “a beautiful walk of shade trees” replacing “mean and densely crowded” buildings that had been “a reproach to the city as well on the score of morals as of taste.” (116) Among the earliest private gardens in the city, Fraser singled out that created by the expatriate British nursery- and seedsman Robert Squibb (author of The Gardener's Calendar for South-Carolina, Georgia, and North-Carolina [1787)]), which later became Rickett’s Circus, as well as the large gardens of Martha Daniell Logan (1704-1779), author of the planting advice column “A Gardener’s Kalendar, and of Colonel Laurens, which occupied an entire city square and connected to Federal Green). (25-27) Among the early public gathering spots noted by Fraser were Gibbes’s Bridge, “where seats and refreshments were provided for the company that used to resort there on warm summer evenings,” and Watson’s Garden, “a beautifully cultivated piece of ground…about a mile from the city, adorned with shrubbery and hedges, and fine umbrageous trees.” (64) Both a botanic garden and a botanic society were instituted, but failed. (67) Fraser also commented on the transformed landscape that resulted from the breaking up of plantations, noting that “the ruinous remains of many of their seats and mansions…are melancholy memorials of bye-gone days.” (58) [11]

--Robyn Asleson





  1. Martha R. Severens and Charles L. Wyrick, Jr., eds., ‘’Charles Fraser of Charleston: Essays on the Man, His Art and His Times’’ (Charleston, S.C.: Carolina Art Association , 1983), 16, view on Zotero.
  2. Roberta Sokolitz, “Picturing the Plantation,” in ‘’Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art’’, ed. Angela E. Mack and Stephen G. Hoffius (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina, 2008), 30, 39, 45, view on Zotero; Roberta Kefalos, “Landscapes of Thomas Coram and Charles Fraser,” ‘’American Art Review’’, (May/June 1998): 122-27, view on Zotero.
  3. Severens, 77-78; Fraser and Smith, 1959, 18, 38, view on Zotero.
  4. Charles Fraser and Alice R. Huger Smith, ‘’A Charleston Sketchbook, 1796-1806’’ (Rutland, Vt.: Charles E.Tuttle Company for the Carolina Art Association, 1959), 8, 19, 21, view on Zotero.
  5. Severens, 16-17, 32; Rutledge, Anna Wells, Artists in the Life of Charleston: Through Colony and State, from Restoration to Reconstruction , Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1949), 133-34, view on Zotero.
  6. Severens, 87.
  7. Anon., ‘Domestic Literature and Fine Arts’, Analectic Magazine and Naval Chronicle, 8 (1816), 453, view on Zotero.
  8. Severens, 75-76.
  9. Gilman, Samuel, Catalogue of Miniature Portraits, Landscapes, and Other Pieces, Executed by Charles Fraser, Esq., and Exhibited in ‘The Fraser Gallery,’ at Charleston, during the Months of February and March, 1857. Accompanied by Occasional Annotations, and a Compendious Sketch of the Life and Career of the Artist (Charleston: James and Williams, 1857); Rutledge, 49, 134-35, view on Zotero.
  10. Fraser, Charles, Reminiscences of Charleston (Charleston, S.C.: J. Russell, 1854), 3, view on Zotero.
  11. Source

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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Charles Fraser," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Charles_Fraser&oldid=7035 (accessed March 24, 2023).

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