John Arthur Fraser was born in London in 1838.
Soon after emigrating from England in 1858, Fraser joined the firm of William Notman in Montréal as a tinter of photographs. and in 1868 he moved to Toronto to establish the partnership of Notman and Fraser.
He was the vice-president of Ontario Society of Artists in 1872 and taught evening classes at The School of Art throughout the late 1870's. He was also involved in the Royal Canadian Academy.
He was known as a strong-headed man, often said to be in bitter disputes with fellow artists. He painted primarily in watercolour and was praised for the photographic realism of his landscapes. He also completed illustrations for a number of companies and publications.
Some time during 1880's he joined the Boston Art Club and became a charter member of the Boston Water Color Society.
He was commission by William Cornelius Van Horne in 1886 to paint three large watercolours from the CPR railway’s collection of photographs of the Rocky Mountains in order to promote the railway’s new line through the mountains. Fraser finally saw the Rocky Mountains when he was sent out along the entire length of the CPR line to sketch. In 1887 he held an exhibition of his CPR paintings at the Canadian Club, in New York.
He was elected to the board of control of the New York Water Color Club for 1893 and 1894, and to that of the American Water Color Society for 1894 and 1895. He was by then no longer exhibiting in Canada, although an auction took place with some of his work in Toronto.
In 1889 Fraser and his wife settled in New York City where he began to exhibit with the Society of American Artists, the New York Water Color Club, and the National Academy of Design.
He died in 1898 in New York City.