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Gutzon Borglum

Gutzon Borglum was born in log cabin near Bear Lake, Idaho in 1867 and lived in Utah until 1869. The first sculptor to celebrate the American west and most well known as the sculptor of the Mount Rushmore monument, he created more than 170 sculptures in his lifetime. He died while on a speaking tour in Chicago in 1941. 

Borglum's parents were Danish immigrants who converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He spent his childhood in Omaha and when he was seventeen, he moved with his family to Los Angeles where he worked as a lithographer. Borglum studied with Virgil Williams at the Mark Hopkins School of Art in San Francisco in the 1880s. From 1890 to 1893 he lived in Paris where he studied the academic approach to sculpting at the Académie Julian and at the École des Beaux Arts. Auguste Rodin was a major influence on his work. By 1896, Borglum exhibited both painting and sculpture in London and Paris. 

Borglum moved to New York in 1901. His first sculptural success was the Mares of Diomedes (1903). He was commissioned to create a sculpture of the apostles that became part of the statuary at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Sculptures of Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Paine were also commissioned. His large sculpture, The Head of Lincoln, appears in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. 

While working on The Head of Lincoln, Borglum became interested in increasingly monumental sculptural size. He worked on his most famous sculpture, The Mount Rushmore National Monument, in the Black Hills of South Dakota from 1927 until his death in 1941. The 60-foot faces of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt were blasted out of the granite of the 5,275-foot peak. His son, Lincoln Borglum, finished the monument after his father's death.

Biographical information on this page was adapted from the Springville Museum of Art.

Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum was born in St. Charles, near Bear Lake, Idaho Territory, on March 26, 1867. His parents were both from Denmark, and Borglum may have developed his love of sculpting by watching his father work as a woodcutter. He also had a younger brother, Solon, who followed in his footsteps and became an artist. As a child, Gutzon lived in Utah from 1868-1869.

Gutzon Borglum studied art in a variety of places including San Francisco, California, and Paris, France. While in Paris, Borglum was greatly influenced by the sculpture of Auguste Rodin. Borglum's place of study in France was the Academie Julian, where he studied the academic approach to sculpting from 1890-1893.

Although Borglum studied abroad for a time, his greatest interest remained the subjects he found in the United States. As a boy, Borglum developed his love for the West in particular, preferring to create images of horses and American Indians over other subjects.

In 1901, Gutzon moved to New York where he was commissioned to create a sculpture of the apostles for the St. John the Divine Cathedral. By now involved in “almost exclusively“ sculpture, Gutzon's work combined his own peculiar western-born exuberance with a Rodin “sketch-like intensity,“ the result of his years of study in Paris. One excellent example of this powerful combination is his piece Mares of Diomedes, described as a “foaming 'Wild West' stampede in rather transparent mythological 'clothing.'“ When the Mares of Diomedes became the first American sculpture to be purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Borglum's growing fame was officially sealed.

During his adult life, Gutzon Borglum created many sculptures that epitomize the great figures of American democracy. He completed several sculptures depicting United States' President Abraham Lincoln, including one using a six-ton block of marble to depict the head of President Lincoln. This Head of Lincoln can be found at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. He also completed sculptures of Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Paine. However, while creating his giant sculpture of Lincoln, Borglum became fascinated with art that was larger than life.

Borglum was inventive in creating massive works. He even created new methods for successfully displaying a human figure at many times its actual size. Borglum's greatest challenge was completing the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This work required Borglum to create the faces of four former United States' presidents. Yet the faces were not merely double or triple the size of the actual human face, but each face was 60 feet high. Borglum worked on the Monument for 14 summers, but died before it was finished. His son, Lincoln, also a sculptor, finished the work seven months later.

Borglum's personality was said to be “outspoken“ and at times “egotistical.“ This type of behavior may have been provoked by Borglum's own need to be the best at what he did, which caused him to be critical of anyone who did not share his high ideals in art. Borglum is quoted as saying about his art:

“And I remember very distinctly that beauty and form and the making of things seemed to be a very idle kind of pastime until I myself formed some definite ideals for my own life, quite apart from my own work, and then the work shaped itself to fulfill that life.“

Gutzon Borglum created as many as 170 statues and monuments during his lifetime. His work ranges from Western inspired pieces, to classical works, to those that honor and glorify the ideals and heroes of American society.

Biography courtesy Springville Museum of Art.


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