Born to the second wife of a Danish Latter-day Saint (LDS; see also Mormon) who practiced Plural Marriage in Idaho Territory, Gutzon Borglum was raised in California and trained in Paris, at the Académie Julian, where he came to know Auguste Rodin and was influenced by Rodin's dynamic impressionistic light-catching surfaces. Back in the U.S., in New York he sculpted about a hundred saints and apostles for the new Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in 1901, got a sculpture accepted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first sculpture by a living American the museum had ever purchased, and made his presence further felt with some well-placed portraits. Soon he had a national reputation.
A fascination with gigantic scale and themes of heroic nationalism suited his extroverted personality. His head of Abraham Lincoln, carved from a six-ton block of marble, was exhibited in Theodore Roosevelt's White House and can be found in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. A bully patriot, believing that the "monuments we have built are not our own," he looked to create art that was "American, drawn from American sources, memorializing American achievement" according to a 1908 interview article. His equation of being "American" with being born of American parentsó"flesh of our flesh"ówas characteristic of nativist beliefs in the early 20th century. Borglum was highly suited to the competitive environment surrounding the contracts for public buildings and monuments, and his public sculpture is sited all around the United States.
Borglum was active in the committee that organized the New York Armory Show of 1913, the birthplace of modernism in American art. But by the time the show was ready to open, Borglum resigned from the committee, feeling that the emphasis on avant-garde works had co-opted the original premise of the show and made traditional artists like himself look provincial.
Such public stances made Borglum seem an ideologically sympathetic choice to carve a memorial to heroes of the Confederacy, planned for Stone Mountain, Georgia. In 1915, he was approached by the United Daughters of the Confederacy with a project for sculpting a 70-foot statue of General Robert E. Lee on the mountain's rockface, the largest naked granite outcropping in the world. Borglum accepted, but told the committee that a 70-foot carving of Lee at Stone Mountain would look like a postage stamp on the side of a barn.
After a delay caused by World War I, Borglum and the newly-chartered Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association set to work on this unexampled monument, the size of which had never been attempted before. Many difficulties slowed progress, some because of the sheer scale involved. After finishing the detailed model of the carving, Borglum was unable to trace his ideas onto the massive area onto which he was working, until he developed a gigantic magic lantern to project the image onto the side of the mountain.
Carving officially began on June 23, 1923, with Borglum making the first cut. Lee's head was unveiled on Lee's birth day January 19, 1924, to a large crowd, but soon thereafter Borglum was increasingly at odds with the officials of the Association. At Stone Mountain he developed sympathetic connections with the reorganized Ku Klux Klan, who were major financial backers for the monument, but his domineering, perfectionist, irascible, authoritarian manner brought tensions to such a point that in March 1925 Borglum smashed his clay and plaster models and exited Georgia permanently. His tenure with the Association was over. None of his work remains, as it was all cleared for the work of Augustus Lukeman, Borglum's replacement, but in the abortive attempt Borglum had developed necessary techniques for sculpting on a gigantic scale that made Mount Rushmore possible.
The Mount Rushmore project is told in more detail at its own entry. Briefly, it was the brainchild of South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson. The initial pair of presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were soon joined by Thomas Jefferson, for this monument sited in the sacred Native American heartland of the Louisiana Purchase, and to make the theme of Manifest Destiny perfectly clear, Theodore Roosevelt.
Borglum alternated exhausting on-site supervising with world tours, raising money, polishing his personal legend, sculpting a Thomas Paine for Paris and a Woodrow Wilson for Poland. In his absence, work at Mount Rushmore was overseen by his son Lincoln. When he died in Chicago, Illinois, following complications after surgery, his son finished another season at Rushmore, but left the monument largely in the state of completion it had reached under his father's direction.
Borglum is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale in the Memorial Court of Honor. His second wife, Mary Montgomery Williams Borglum, 1874 - 1955 (they were married May 20, 1909) is interred alongside him.