John Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941)

Born in Bear Lake, Idaho in a log house, Gutzon Borglum is best known as the large-scale portrait sculptor of the heads of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. This project on which he worked, 1927 to 1941, cost the United States Government $989,000.00 and was called "sculpture with dynamite" (Samuels 58) because he blasted stone within inches of the final carving. The last day of work on the presidential heads was October 31, 1941, shortly after Borglum's death the preceding March and just before the United States entered World War II.

 

On the Mount Rushmore project, the nose of President Washington is 20 feet long, and the overall height of the figures is about 60 feet. Borglum's son, Lincoln, oversaw the final touches and clean up of the project.

 

Early in his career, Borglum was a painter whose specialty was western subjects with cowboys, Indians and animals, reflective of his life in the early West. He was the son of an immigrant Danish woodcarver whose polygamous marriage to sisters resulted in the birth of Gutzon and his sculptor brother, Solon. When the boys were young, the father ceased to practice Mormonism and became a doctor, setting up practice in Omaha and later Fremont, Nebraska. He then lived only with his first wife. Her sister and the mother of Solon and Gutzon left the family circle and never appeared again in their lives.

 

Gutzon attended public schools in Omaha and Fremont, Nebraska, and St. Mary College, a Jesuit School in Xavier, Kansas. He apprenticed to a lithographer in Los Angeles, where he moved with his family when he was age 17, and he also worked for a fresco painter and lithographer.

 

In the mid 1880s, he studied painting at the California School of Design with Virgil Williams, William Keith, and artist Elizabeth Janes Putnam, whom he married and then divorced in 1908. The sale of some of his paintings for several thousand dollars allowed him to study at the Julian Academy and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He began there as a painter but changed to sculpture, and he exhibited both mediums with western themes at the Paris Salons in the 1890s and earned much acclaim. He was regarded as a disciple of sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose work he greatly admired.

 

From 1895 to 1901, Gutzon Borglum gained prominence in London with his portraits as well as murals, illustrations and sculpture. He did sketches of the Boer War for the Illustrated London News and then returned permanently to the United States.

 

In 1902, he opened a studio in New York City, and one of his first completed projects was his white stone bust of Abraham Lincoln that was placed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. He taught at the Art Students League from 1906 to 1907, and was one of the founders of the American Association of Painters and Sculptors that organized the 1913 Armory Show. This exhibition was a landmark in American art because it brought to the United States, for the first time, modernist work that reflected radical movements in Europe.

 

Borglum also had studios in Raleigh, North Carolina, and San Antonio, Texas, where in 1925, he executed a bronze monument for the Old Trail Drivers Association. It was eventually placed at the Rangers Museum, adjoining the Witte Memorial Museum. His studio that he had remodeled for a considerable sum became the Museum Art School when Borglum left in 1937 with disappointment that he had not received a commission for the Texas Centennial. However, he continued to maintain a residence in San Antonio, and working from there, he created many works including statues of General John Campbell of Arizona, the poet Sidney Lanier, President Woodrow Wilson, and the models for his Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

 

Borglum died in Chicago on March 6, 1941, while on a speaking tour, and was buried in the Court of Honor at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California. In 1972, the Smithsonian Institution held a large exhibition of his work.

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