Notable Black Hills People-Gutzon Borglum
Written by Dolsee Davenport
October 29, 2018

Gutzon Borglum was born March 25, 1867 in Bear Lake, Idaho.  He was the son of Danish immigrants and was raised from age seven in Nebraska. He studied art in San Francisco and then, from 1890 to 1893, in Paris at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts.  In 1901 Borglum established himself in New York City, where he sculpted a bronze group called The Mares of Diomedes, the first piece of American sculpture bought for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Borglum's major work back in America included a bust of Abraham Lincoln, which he was able to exhibit in Theodore Roosevelt's White House. The Lincoln portrait and other much-admired works gave Borglum a national reputation which inspired a group of Southern women to commission a similar head of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee on Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, Georgia.  He was able to unveil the head of Lee in 1924, but disputes with his patrons led Borglum shortly thereafter to abandon the work, which was completed by others.

In 1927, South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson read about Stone Mountain and invited Borglum out to the Black Hills of South Dakota to create a monument there. That year Borglum began sculpting the 60-foot-high heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt on the face of the mountain.  Borglum’s project in the Black Hills was dedicated in 1927 by President Calvin Coolidge.  “We have come here to dedicate a cornerstone that was laid by the hand of the Almighty,” Coolidge said. “The union of these four presidents carved on the face of the everlasting hills of South Dakota will constitute a distinctly national monument. It will be decidedly American in its conception, in its magnitude, in its meaning, and altogether worthy of our country.”

Washington’s head was unveiled in 1930, Jefferson’s in 1936, Lincoln’s in 1937, and Roosevelt’s in 1939.  Borglum died in March 1941, never seeing the completion of Mount Rushmore.  His son, Lincoln, became the first superintendent of the monument and continued sculpting the mountain.  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.  Work on the monument officially stopped October 31, 1941, leaving it as you see it today, unfinished.

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