Gutzon Borglum

gigatos | February 9, 2022


John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum (March 25, 1867 – March 6, 1941) was an American artist and sculptor who became world famous for his Mount Rushmore work depicting four great American presidents. These four faces of 18 meters high are located in the state of South Dakota in the Black Hills.

Gutzon Borglum was born in Saint Charles, Idaho. He was the son of the second wife of a Danish Mormon who was a woodcarver. At the age of seven, he moved to Nebraska and later graduated from Creighton Preparatory School. Between 1890 and 1893, he trained in Paris at the Académie Julian, where he met Auguste Rodin, whose work influenced him. During his stay, his painting and sculpture were admitted to the Salon de peinture et de sculpture. Between 1896 and 1901, in England, he received remuneration, including one from the Royalty.

Returning to the United States, he sculpted the saints and apostles for the new Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1901. One of his sculptures was accepted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art – the first sculpture by a living American that the museum had ever purchased – and he further established his presence with a few portraits. He also won the Logan Medal of the Arts.After graduating from Harvard Technical College, his reputation surpassed that of his younger brother Solon Borglum, an already renowned sculptor.A fascination with gigantic scale and themes of heroic nationalism suited his outgoing personality. His head of Abraham Lincoln, carved from a 6-ton block of marble, was displayed in the White House and is now in the Washington Capitol Rotunda. Borglum was very competitive in winning bids for public buildings and monuments. In 1908, he won the competition for the statue in honor of General Philip Sheridan, (the General Philip Sheridan), to be erected in Sheridan Circle, Washington. A second version was erected in Chicago on June 16, 1923. He briefly contributed to the progressive magazine The Masses (1912).

Borglum believed that “the monuments we have built do not belong to us,” he sought to create art that was “American, drawn from American sources, perpetuating American achievement,” as he noted in a 1908 article. His equation of being “American” and being born of two American parents – “the flesh of our flesh” – was characteristic of the nativist beliefs of the early 20th century.Gutzon Borglum was also a man full of contradictions who was anti-Semitic but had many Jewish friends, he was a member of the KKK but was critical of the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s to the point that Hitler had his statue of Woodrow Wilson in Poznań, northern Poland, destroyed.

Exhausted after traveling the country in search of funds to finish the sculptures on Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum died in 1941 in Chicago. His son Lincoln Borglum (en), then 29 years old, undertook to complete the construction of the monument.

The project was originally conceived by American historian Doane Robinson. The two presidential faces of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were soon joined by those of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Dynamite was used in part to remove large portions of the rough rock from the hill.

Borglum was also forced to travel the world to raise funds to complete his work. At the same time, he sculpted the Thomas Paine Memorial in Paris and the Woodrow Wilson Memorial in Poland. During his periods of absence, the work on Mount Rushmore was supervised by his son Lincoln. When he died in Chicago in 1941, his son completed his father”s work.

Gutzon Borglum was an important figure in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). He was active in the KKK until the end of his life and in 1923 he was a member of the Imperial Koncilum, a council of high-ranking Klansmen who managed the transition of power from Imperial Wizard William Joseph Simmons to Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans. During his lifetime, however, he denied his involvement in the KKK, even though it was public knowledge. Nevertheless, although it is not sufficient evidence of his KKK activity, the Mount Rushmore Museum has a letter from D.C. Stephenson, the Klan Grand Dragon of Indiana (the official state representative of the KKK), later convicted of the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer.

In 1915, he was approached by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a women”s association promoting the memory of soldiers who had fallen for the Confederate States of America, to build the Stone Mountain monument in the state of Georgia, a sculpture to the glory of Robert Lee, general-in-chief of the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. But the irascible, perfectionist and authoritarian character of Gutzon Borglum creates tensions between him and the Klan and in a fit of anger Borglum goes so far as to destroy his plaster and his models and leaves Georgia for good.


  1. Gutzon Borglum
  2. Gutzon Borglum
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