Saturday, March 25, 2017

Gutzon Borglum: Sculptor of Gigantic Figures, Including Mount Rushmore [otd 3/25]

Gutzon Borglum, ca. 1925.
Library of Congress.
Gutzon Borglum, who created the Mount Rushmore monument, was born March 25, 1867 in St. Charles, Idaho, near Bear Lake. "The best archival research" indicates that the family moved to Los Angeles in 1884 and Gutzon stayed there when the rest moved on.*

Borglum began his artistic career as a painter, studying first in California. There he met divorcée Lisa Putnam – a well-connected painter – who became his mentor, manager, and eventually his wife (she was eighteen years older than her protégé).

A year after they were married in 1889, the couple moved to Paris. There, Gutzon studied at several prestigious art schools and studios, and branched out into sculpture. Borglum earned praise, and commissions, for both his painting and sculpture, but he soon began to concentrate on the latter. He completed several important commissions in Europe before returning to the U.S. in 1901.

With a base in New York City, Borglum established a major reputation as a sculptor, aided by his outstanding talent and his persistent cultivation of the media – then the big metropolitan newspapers and national magazines. He attained celebrity status when he began producing out-sized works of art, such as the 40-inch-high bust of President Lincoln displayed in the U. S. Capitol building.

This and other huge works led to a commission for what … eventually … became the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial, on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. The project backers initially envisioned “simply” a giant carving of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the granite face of Stone Mountain.

Borglum fell in love with the notion of carving a whole mountain. He proposed a project to honor a host of Confederate heroes: Lee, Jefferson Davis, and something like seventy officers from all the Confederate states. Of course, his concept proved far too costly and leaders cut it back substantially. Some preparative work began in 1916-1917, but not much happened until about 1923.

The following year, publicity about the proposed project attracted the attention of the South Dakota State Historian. The Historian approached Borglum with a rather modest notion of carving The Needles – a forest of granite spires – into giant statues of western heroes. Borglum had a more grandiose idea: Not obscure Westerners most people had never heard of, but true national figures ... and on a colossal scale.

Planning for a national-scale monument began almost immediately. Thus, when major disagreements arose between Borglum and the Stone Mountain backers in 1925, he abandoned that project altogether. (Almost a half century passed before Atlantans dedicated their memorial.)
Mount Rushmore National Monument.
National Park Service.

Rock-work began on Mount Rushmore in 1927. They completed Washington’s head three years later. With the stock market crash and Great Depression, the second head – Jefferson’s – was not unveiled until 1937. Lincoln’s followed a year later, and Roosevelt’s two years after that. The final carving was not completed until October 1941. Borglum himself did not live to see the completion: he died in March of that year.

* It's somewhat unclear when this move actually happened because, like many celebrities, Borglum "tinkered" with his biography over the years.
References: [Brit]
Richard J. Beck, Famous Idahoans, Williams Printing, (© Richard J. Beck, 1989).
"Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941)," The American Experience, Public Broadcasting System (1999-2000).


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