Charles A. Fraser was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the city in which he would spend the near entirety of his life. During the 1790s, he attended the classical academy of Bishop Robert Smith there in the company of Thomas Sully. Later, he later became associated with Washington Allston, John Blake White and John Stevens Cogdell in the Charleston arts community. With introductions provided by Allston, he visited Newport, Rhode Island in 1806 where he made the acquaintance of John Trumbull and Gilbert Stuart. Despite his considerable artistic aptitude and ambitions, Fraser practiced law until 1818, when he began his career as a painter of miniature portraits. He presented his 1825 miniature of Colonel Francis Kinloch Huger of Charleston to the city to be offered as a token of friendship to the Marquis de Lafayette upon his visit to the city. That same year, Fraser was named an honorary member of the American Academy of the Fine Arts.
In addition to miniatures, Fraser also earned critical acclaim for his landscape painting. As a youth, he studied with the view painter Thomas Coram, copying illustrations from travel books. Indeed, his first review as an artist was for a collection of twenty such scenes, drawings the local newspaper deemed as “fine as any we have ever had occasion to inspect.” By the late 1830s, Fraser—his eyesight diminished by decades of working in taxing detail—turned increasingly to landscape subject matter. The artist’s abiding regard for nature and admiration for the works of Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain deeply influenced this branch of his oeuvre, resulting in paintings that reflect Rosa’s tempestuous atmospherics and Lorrain’s luminosity.
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.”