Sculptor of Rushmore Gutzon Borglum

Mount RushmoreMount Rushmore towers commandingly over the Black Hills of South Dakota, beckoning visitors to come closer to see in detail the four faces of the U.S. presidents carved into the mountainside.

The carvings themselves are so much a part of Rushmore that it’s as if the granite mountain pushed through the earth millions of years ago with the faces of four of America’s most important presidents prophetically carved into the mountain face.

But of course, they were sculpted by men dangling and clambering precariously all over the face of the 6,000-foot mountain (1927-1942). Who was behind it all?

Despite Rushmore’s fame, few know the name of the sculptor.

But there was one man who had the plan, the technical and artistic knowledge, and the eye for making these colossal figures look so natural that one expects them to talk.

The Sculptor

Sculptor of Mount RushmoreThe man capable of making this idea a reality was America-born John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum (1867-1941). Gutzon Borglum was a painter, an illustrator, and a sculptor who cared deeply about any subject he took on.

Testimonials came from unlikely people. One of Borglum’s favorite subjects was Abraham Lincoln, a subject he was always happy to return to. (He named his own son Lincoln, after the great man.)

When Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, the president commissioned Borglum to prepare a marble bust of Lincoln to display there. When Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s only surviving son saw the piece, he uttered in amazement: “I never expected to see Father again!”

Borglum’s statue of Thomas Paine (1937) drew admiration from Helen Keller: “I have had the privilege of examining the model of Borglum’s statue, and it has spoken things into my hand which fill me with emotion.”

Though Borglum was a difficult man to work with and for, most of his clients were given full commitment. Occasionally, a rift between artist and client would become too great to overcome as it did with Stone Mountain. Most of the time Borglum did everything he could to complete his projects.


Borglum’s parents emigrated from Denmark and were living in Idaho when Gutzon was born.

Mt. RushmoreHis father, James, followed the Mormon faith. For a time, he had two wives who were sisters. Gutzon was born to Christina, the younger of the two. When James opted to move the family to St. Louis and abandon Mormonism, he chose to stay with the older sister whom he married first. Gutzon’s mother remained with the family for a time (on a census roll she was listed as a “domestic.”) Eventually she moved on. In the family’s biography of Gutzon, they write that this abandonment was hard for Gutzon to accept.

Though his father enjoyed scholarly pursuits, Gutzon used his curiosity differently. By age 17, he was ready to leave school and set out for California, intent on being an artist.

In San Francisco, he met painter Elizabeth Janes Putnam who became one of his teachers. Eventually they became romantically involved, though she was twenty years his senior. After living and working together in San Francisco, they married in 1889 and traveled to Europe to pursue their art.

Elizabeth Putnam’s paintings were well-regarded internationally. In Paris, she and Gutzon mounted a show together. They also became friends with Auguste Rodin who would later influence Gutzon’s work.

Needed Commissions

Every few months, Borglum returned to the U.S. to meet clients and pick up new assignments. One of his patrons was Jessie Benton Fremont (1824-1902), daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton and wife of military officer and explorer, John C. Fremont. She hired Borglum to do a portrait of her husband and was so delighted she continued to send clients to him.

As Borglum began to sculpt rather than paint, he generally depicted scenes from his beloved West, portraying Native Americans, fallen warriors, Indian scouts, and horses.

However, it was a sculpture of stampeding horses based on a Greek myth that brought him acclaim. His 9-foot bronze sculpture, Mares of Diomedes, was accepted into the art show at the St. Louis Exposition in 1884 and was awarded the gold medal.

The exposure was career-changing. The art work was purchased for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was the first work obtained by the museum by an American sculptor.

Returning Home

As Borglum gained prominence in America, he was increasingly interested in returning to the United States. His marriage to Elizabeth Putnam was fading. In 1901, Borglum returned alone; Elizabeth chose to remain in Europe. On shipboard, however, he met Mary Williams Montgomery, a young American who had just obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Berlin.

He and Mary became inseparable, but they could not wed until 1909 when Borglum’s divorce became final.

Mary and Gutzon settled in Connecticut. They began buying land outside Stamford. Their house—called Borgland—was entirely built of stone. Some of the stone cutters whom Borglum brought in to build the house, later went with him to Rushmore.

Son Lincoln was born in 1912 and daughter Mary Ellis came along in 1916.

During this time, Borglum worked steadily. Government entities and individuals hired him to memorialize the great and the near-great.

Arizona Woman Seeks Him Out

Isabella Greenway was a good example of Borglum’s clients. Married to John Greenway, a former Rough Rider and Arizona copper magnate, she was recently widowed. John Greenway was a notable citizen, and Isabella campaigned for him to receive recognition. When the state finally agreed with her, she selected Borglum as the sculptor and worked closely with him to achieve a proper likeness.

John Greenway

In 1930, Borglum’s statue of Greenway was selected to be one of the two statues representing Arizona in Statuary Hall in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (In 2008, Greenway’s statue was removed and replaced by one of Barry Goldwater.)

Borglum later requested that Isabella Greenway—by the mid-1930s a member of Congress, representing Arizona—be added to the Rushmore Memorial Commission. She was the only woman.

Borglum could have continued with commissions such as these, but then came an opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to sculpt a mountain.

Stone Mountain Commission

Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy wanted to honor Confederate General Robert E. Lee with a bas relief. They selected Stone Mountain for the project, as the owners were among the Georgians reviving the Ku Klux Klan; the idea of the memorial appealed to them.

When Borglum was approached about the project, he broadened the proposal, pointing out that a carving of a single man on a mountain side would not adequately fill the space. He submitted a plan that depicted Stonewall Jackson pointing ahead to the infantry with Robert E. Lee and Confederate president Jefferson Davis just behind.

“Training Wheels” for Rushmore

A ceremony was held in 1916 to mark the beginning of the Stone Mountain project. Borglum signed a contract that it would be completed in 12 years.

Borglum had never undertaken a carving such as this. As usual, he began with research about the figures followed by a clay model to envision how it could be translated to the mountain. He also became chief fundraiser and publicist, and when fundraising fell behind, he often reached in to his own pocket to cover expenses.

During this time, Borglum joined the Ku Klux Klan. This may have been in an effort to raise added funds, but friends and family greeted that development with regret and have difficulty reconciling it with the Borglum they knew.

A Silhouette on the Mountain

When one carves a mountain, it certainly can’t be done “free hand,” so Borglum needed to figure out a way to make a tracing on the mountainside.

Light projectors in the late 1910s could project only 300 feet. To reflect on Stone Mountain, Borglum needed something that could project 700 feet. He consulted designers, engineers, and optical experts to help him, and ultimately, the group created a new, long-range projector.

Borglum already fashioned a safety harness that permitted men to be dropped over the edge of the mountain to trace the placement for the bas relief. They selected the night and dropped the worker over the edge of Stone Mountain. After many hours, they had the pattern Borglum needed.

Borglum also knew that hand tools would never get the job done. He located a Belgian engineer who had experience carving on mountainsides. The fellow traveled to Georgia to teach the men how to dynamite under very rigid controls. With this method, Borglum’s workers could blow away enough of the rock that only about 3 inches remained for hand-chiseling.

By January 19, 1924, the first figure was to be unveiled. Six Southern governors arrived for the dedication. When the outline of Robert E. Lee was revealed, thunderous applause erupted.

But only months later, things went very much awry.

Politics Muddle Stone Mountain

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association was distressed by cost overruns and scheduling delays. They removed the Daughters of the Confederacy from the project and said they were done with Borglum as well. They offered Borglum’s job to Jessie Tucker, Borglum’s second-in-command. That didn’t sit well with anyone.

Borglum was furious and destroyed all the models and plans for the completion of the project, angering many. Tucker turned down the job out of loyalty to his boss, and the two men left town quickly.

Another Invitation

Sculptor Mount Rushmore
Borglum with son, Lincoln

Before the fall-out at Stone Mountain, South Dakota historian Doane Robinson visited Borglum. He was curious about what was underway in Georgia.

Robinson wanted to bring visitors to the state he loved.  In the 1920s, few people toured, and even fewer would have traveled north to the Dakotas. Robinson knew he needed an attraction to bring them there.

After Robinson’s visit to Stone Mountain, he developed a plan for the Black Hills. Why not create a monument to America there? If Borglum accepted the challenge, tourism would flow to the state.

Monument to America

The Needles

At Robinson’s invitation, Borglum—taking along 12-year-old son Lincoln– traveled to the Black Hills to evaluate what Robinson had in mind. Robinson took them to the Needles, a section of the Black Hills featuring sharp shafts of granite that appear needle-like. One could envision these shafts being turned in to people. Robinson and Borglum discussed selecting important presidents to be honored here.

After careful study, Borglum disagreed with the location. The granite was of poor quality for carving. He did not think it could work.

However, Borglum was captivated by something else—Mount Rushmore, a massive granite mountain that is part of the Black Elk Ridge in the Black Hills. The summit of Rushmore is 6000 feet, and Borglum was intrigued by its expanse and its southeastern exposure. The open space promised continuous change because shadows and sunlight played all day across the mountain face. He also felt the fine-grain of the granite increased the possibility of the careful detailing of features. The granite was also unlikely to erode much over time.

“America will march along that skyline,” Borglum told Robinson that day.

As the plan came together, the presidents chosen were those who  were part of the dramatic moments of history:” George Washington because he founded the country, Thomas Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase; Abraham Lincoln for preserving the country; and Teddy Roosevelt because he was the first to undertake any sort of preservation.

Funding Rushmore

Borglum reached out to wealthy friends and patrons, and Robinson tried to get money flowing from the state, but South Dakota encountered a drought which meant that excess money was as hard to find as irrigation water for the land. Robinson, however, was not to be discouraged. He contacted memorial organizations for the presidents to be featured, and inspired programs within schools, knowing that every penny helped.

Calvin Coolidge showing his catch of the day

And then they hit good luck. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge announced that he wanted to vacation in the West to try his hand at fly-fishing. Doane Robinson and others pulled out all the stops to get the president to select South Dakota for his visit. They offered housing, touted bounteous results from fishing, and sent photos of the stark beauty of the state.

Soon President Calvin Coolidge, wife Grace, 5 canaries, 2 dogs, and their pet raccoon Rebecca boarded a train west to spend the summer in South Dakota. Once Coolidge was there, it was relatively easy for the locals to convince him of the merits of this idea. Coolidge promised matching funds.

Work Begins

Coolidge’s visit was well-timed as Borglum, now 60, was almost ready to begin work on Mount Rushmore.  For the next 14 years, men in harnesses spent long days and battled weather to get to the mountain face each day to blast away chunks of stone so that artisans led by Luigi del Bianco, a stonecutter from Portchester, New York, could move in with chisels and jackhammers to refine the work underway.

As the face of the great project, Borglum often had to travel to raise funds. However, his top aide, Ivan Houser, supervised in his absence. (When Houser resigned to start a local pottery business, Lincoln Borglum was old enough to step in to Houser’s shoes.)

Luigi del Bianco led the crews working on delicate aspects of the carvings. He relied on feedback from Houser and the Borglums who would approach the mountain from far away and then move in close—observing and noting how the details appeared from every angle. Was the hair falling naturally, did the men’s eyes appear focused, what expression did the viewer “read” from far away?

Ultimately, they had 350-400 men working on the monument. Some 450,000 tons of stone were dynamited and removed.

Originally, Borglum intended to depict the full torso and head of each man, but the work was so laborious they simplified it to involve the heads only. However, Borglum was intent on one more thing—he wanted to build a Hall of Records—a bunker—where America could place certain documents for safe-keeping.

This work was underway when Gutzon Borglum became ill in 1941.

The Unexpected End

In 1941, Gutzon Borglum traveled to Chicago for medical care. Tragically, he died of complications from surgery before he considered Rushmore complete.

By this time, Lincoln Borglum had been on the site almost as much as his father and was able to contemplate what to do, and he was definitive. The work underway should be completed, but all else should be left as it was when the artist, his father, still had strength to make decisions.

The following year—1942–Lincoln Borglum declared Mount Rushmore complete.

Looking Back

No one has written better about the project that Gutzon Borglum himself, describing his hope and his dream for Rushmore:

Hence, let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.”

“…think of this face in the dimension of a five-story building …where the clouds fold about it like a great scarf, where the stars blink over it, and the moon hides behind a lock of hair.

“Ask yourself if you are going to take the brooding sorrow, the soul and the martyrdom out of Lincoln’s face and make it coarse, a rough mask, or are you going to carry the humanity of that great soul into the granite cliff? 

 “Are you going to put into Washington’s face a strength that defied England’s hangman’s rope, assuring his people the same safety and freedom?

“Are you going to forget the fine culture of brilliant Jefferson, the people’s man, and not send him into history with his face turned to the skies of Louisiana that he loved?

“And of Roosevelt, the first president who never ceased to be a boy, who never left the fields and plains of the wild west that gave him strength so gloriously, fearlessly, that all the western world rang with his laughter—what of him?”

While Rushmore can’t be classified as a natural wonder in the way a cascading waterfall can, the mountain carving is a masterful wonder showing the dreams, the ingenuity, and the perseverance of men.

Visitors to Rushmore can’t help but agree that Gutzon Borglum’s dream was realized.


There is much more to tell about the men and the crafting of the monument. That story will be told in another post later in the year (2018).

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