John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum’s father, a Danish Mormon, was a bigamist. He was married to Borglum’s mother and her sister. Their life in Idaho and Utah was accommodating, but when they moved to Nebraska, Borglum’s dad decided to restructure his family to fit in better. He divorced Borglum’s mom but stayed married to his aunt. It’s hard to know how this influenced the young man, but as an adult he was very independent with an ego as big as a mountain.
When he was sixteen, the family moved to Los Angeles where Borglum started to express himself artistically. He teacher was Elizabeth Jaynes Putnam, an accomplished painter who was 18 years older than her student. Their relationship soon turned personal, and they were married in 1889 when Borglum was 22 years old.
Borglum had great success early on, and his portrait of General John C. Fremont led to his first patron, Fremont’s wife, who introduced him to Leland Stanford and Theodore Roosevelt.
CARVING OUT A CAREER When the Borglums went to Paris, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian. Both he and his wife mounted successful exhibitions. The biggest artistic influence was his encounter with Auguste Rodin, and he abandoned painting for sculpture. Since his brother Solon was a sculptor, sibling rivalry also could have been a factor in changing his medium.
When Borglum and his wife returned to California the state was in a deep financial depression, and artists weren’t able to get commissions. In 1896 they ventured to London where he had some of his art on display in Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria.
As Borglum’s career started to out shine his wife’s, the marriage suffered. He left Europe in 1901 alone to return to the United States. Onboard the ship bound for America, Borglum met Mary Montgomery, a younger woman returning from Berlin. She was one of the first two women to ever earn a doctorate in Berlin and had mastered six languages. He respected her intelligence and passion and the balance she brought to his life. Finally, in 1909, Putnam granted Borglum a divorce and he and Montgomery were married. The couple moved to Connecticut and settled on a farm they called “Borgland.” Three years later a son, Lincoln, was born followed by a daughter, Mary Ellis.
Borglum grew increasingly famous as he developed his own style of “American” art. His sculpture Mares of Diomedes was a gold medal winner at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, and it was the first sculpture by an American artist accepted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His greatest notoriety came with a bust of Abraham Lincoln which was originally displayed in Theodore Roosevelt’s White House and is currently exhibited in the rotunda of the Capital building.
PLAYING POLITICS Art was not the only contribution Borglum made to American society. He was outspoken about his political opinions and tried to wield some celebrity influence by campaigning for Roosevelt’s reelection in 1912. During the Wilson administration Borglum, in a departure from his usual focus, investigated malpractices in aircraft manufacture and reported his findings directly to President Wilson. Borglum and the president disagreed about how the artist became involved in such an investigation, and their dispute became public. Borglum was adamant that President Wilson specifically appointed him to the task and published letters in the New York Times defending his involvement. The president, in letters to Borglum and the Secretary of War which the White House also released to the New York Times, tried to distance himself from Borglum appreciating his discoveries but apparently not wanting to be linked too closely to the man.
MOVING A MOUNTAIN It was Borglum’s bust of Lincoln that led to his first mountain carving. He was invited by the Daughters of the Confederacy to carve a bust of Robert E. Lee in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Upon visiting the site he declared that doing just the head of Lee would be as impressive as a postage stamp on a barn door. Instead, he created a design of a more appropriate scale that incorporated Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson on horseback in front of a row of soldiers. He started carving the piece in 1923 with chisels and jackhammers until he learned the art of using dynamite for detail work from a Belgian engineer.
Borglum joined the Ku Klux Klan while he was developing this project. It’s not clear if he did it as an expression of his core beliefs or to patronize the backers. He was known to shun anyone who could not directly help him through money or influence. Borglum’s artistic temperament clashed with the patrons and he was kicked off the job. Another artist was hired to complete the monument, and ultimately none of Borglum’s work survived. He did benefit from the work he did, however, by developing techniques he used on later projects.
BIGGER IS BETTER While Borglum was working on Stone Mountain, the state historian from South Dakota tempted him with the idea of creating a sculpture in the mountains of the Black Hills. The sculptor saw the potential for more national recognition than the Georgia project afforded him, so he agreed to the challenge and uprooted his family, moving them to Keystone, South Dakota. His original subjects were Washington and Lincoln. The Louisiana Purchase by Jefferson and the acquisition Panama Canal by Roosevelt expanded the story of the monument to the Manifest Destiny of the United States, and those two profiles were added to the design. Borglum began carving the mountain in 1927 when he was 60 years old.
Borglum is responsible for creating the model and p
icking the site for the carving. During the sculpting he was often more supervisory than hands-on. He would climb all over the mountain to find the best angle for the features of each bust, often insisting on the accuracy of details that could not be seen from ground level.
For long periods of time he turned the reigns over to his assistants, including his son Lincoln, while he traveled to Washington D.C. to get more funding or to Europe to work on other commissioned projects. Whenever he returned to Mt. Rushmore, he would resume micromanaging the workers.
BITING THE HAND THAT FED HIM Again his artistic temperament got him into trouble. John Boland was chairman of the Mt. Rushmore executive committee and responsible for all the finances on the project. He was both a friend and nemesis to Borglum. When money became tight for the artist, it was Boland who guaranteed bank loans so he could keep his home. On occasion, the businessman even kept Borglum afloat with a personal loan.
But Borglum didn’t like being beholden to anyone. He fired some of the best workers and frequently butted heads with Boland, always insisting on doing things his way. These clashes led to a rift in their relationship. Eventually, however, their wives intervened and conspired to effect a successful reconciliation between the two men.
Borglum never got to see the Mt. Rushmore project completed. He died in 1941 at the age of 74 from complications related to surgery. His son, Lincoln, took charge, working one additional season, but the monument basically remained the way his father left it.