Borglum is most famous, however, for his monumental works. He designed the first of these, a Confederate memorial on Stone Mt., Ga., and began carving it in 1916. The work was interrupted by World War I but was resumed in 1924. As the result of an acrimonious controversy with the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, he ceased working and destroyed his models. Moving to South Dakota, Borglum began work on the gigantic Mount Rushmore National Memorial in 1927. One of the largest sculptural projects in existence, the memorial was also a great engineering feat. Borglum had nearly finished the 60-ft (18.3-m) heads of the four presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt) when he died. Plans for an even more ambitious composition were abandoned and the work was finished (1941) by his son Lincoln. Borglum was a man of tremendous vitality and decided opinions that led him into frequent confrontations. His brother Solon Hannibal Borglum, 1868-1922, was also a sculptor, noted especially for his portrayal of horses, cattle, Native Americans, and cowboys.
See R. J. Casey and M. Borglum, Give the Man Room: the Story of Gutzon Borglum (1952); W. Price, Gutzon Borglum, Artist and Patriot (1961); A. M. Davies, Solon H. Borglum (1974); J. Taliaferro, Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore (2002).
(John) Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum (March 25, 1867 – March 6, 1941) was an American artist and sculptor famous for creating the monumental presidents' heads at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, as well as other public works of art.
After graduation from Harvard Technical College, his reputation surpassed that of his younger brother, Solon Borglum, already an established sculptor.
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 parents—"flesh of our flesh"—was 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.
In 1908 Borglum won a competition for a statue of the Civil War General Philip Sheridan to be placed in Sheridan Circle in Washington D.C. A second version was erected in Chicago in 1923 (illustration, left) Winning this competition was a personal triumph for him because he won out over sculptor J.Q.A.Ward, a much older and more established artist, and one whom Borglum had clashed with earlier in regard to the National Sculpture Society. At the unveiling of the Sheridan one critic, President Theodore Roosevelt (whom Borglum was later to put on Mount Rushmore) declared that it was "first rate," and another critic was to state that, "as a sculptor Gutzon Borglum was no longer a rumor, he was a fact." (Smith:see References)
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. He lived in Stamford, Connecticut for 10 years — from 1910 to 1920.
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 on 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. At Stone Mountain he developed sympathetic connections with the reorganized Ku Klux Klan, who were major financial backers for the monument. Lee's head was unveiled on Lee's birthday January 19, 1924, to a large crowd, but soon thereafter Borglum was increasingly at odds with the officials of the Association. 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 from the mountain's face for the work of Augustus Lukeman, Borglum's replacement, but in his abortive attempt, Borglum had developed necessary techniques for sculpting on a gigantic scale that made Mount Rushmore possible.
Borglum alternated exhausting on-site supervising with world tours, raising money, polishing his personal legend, sculpting a Thomas Paine memorial for Paris and a Woodrow Wilson one for Poland. In his absence, work at Mount Rushmore was overseen by his son Lincoln. When he died in Chicago, 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.
One of Borglum's more unusual pieces is the "Aviator", completed in 1919 as a memorial for James R. McConnell, who was killed in World War I while flying for the Lafayette Escadrille. It is located on the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Another impressive Borglum design is the North Carolina state monument on Seminary Ridge at the Gettysburg Battlefield in south-central Pennsylvania. The cast bronze sculpture depicts a wounded Confederate officer encouraging his men to push forward during Pickett's Charge. With dramatic flair, Borglum had made arrangements for an airplane to fly over the monument during the dedication ceremony on July 3, 1929. During the sculpture's unveiling, the plane scattered roses across the field as a salute to those North Carolinians who had fought and died at Gettysburg.
Borglum was an active member of the Ancient Free and Accepted Mason (the Freemasons), raised in Howard Lodge #35, New York City, on June 10, 1904, and serving as its Worshipful Master 1910-11. In 1915, he was appointed Grand Representative of the Grand Lodge of Denmark near the Grand Lodge of New York. He received his Scottish Rite Degrees in the New York City Consistory on October 25, 1907.Borglum was a prominent Life Member of The Ku Klux Klan. He sat on the Imperial Koncilium in 1923, which transferred leadership of The Ku Klux Klan from Imperial Wizard Colonel Simmons to Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans. Later while under intense pressure and scrutiny, both public and media, he superficially repudiated The KKK.The museum at Mount Rushmore displays a letter to Borglum from D. C. Stephenson, the infamous Klan Grand Dragon of Indiana and 22 other northern states. Stephenson was responsible and convicted of murder for the abduction, forced intoxication, and sadistic rape of Madge Oberholtzer, which led to a suicide attempt and eventual death.
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.