Gutzon Borglum

Art on This Day

Gutzon Borglum with an early model of Mount Rushmore, still from Mount Rushmore Models - 1927-1941

Borglum is renowned as the sculptor who designed Mount Rushmore. He was born the son of Danish immigrants and raised from aged 7 in Nebraska. He studied art in San Francisco and then spent 3 years in Paris. From 1901 he began establishing himself in New York City and he sculpted a bronze group piece, ‘The Mares of Diomedes’, the first piece to be bought for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He began focusing on portrait busts and figures, before turning his attention to the ancient Egyptian practice of carving gargantuan statues of political figures in natural formations of rock. He sculpted a colossal head of Abraham Lincoln from a six-tonne clock of marble which was placed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington DC.

In 1927, he began his commission by the state of South Dakota to create a colossal monument out of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills, featuring 60-foot heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1929 the government began financing the project which would become a national memorial. Borglum had originally conceived the figures with more detail, including clothes and limbs; the rough granite of the mountain meant that he had to scale back on his plans. He first made a model of the sculpture, then built an Egyptian inspired measurement machine, like those used to build the pyramids. The machine sat atop the mountain with ratio guidelines (one inch of the model = one foot on the mountain), so the workers could transfer the mathematical measurements from the model onto the mountain to guide their carving.

Guzman Borglum and his son, Lincol, using the tramway at Mount Rushmore. Photo courtesy of Charles D'Emery, the US National Park Service


The head of Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore hides a secret chamber. It was originally planned by Borglum to be a ‘Hall of Records’, telling the story of the monument and acting as a time capsule celebrating American history, with bronze and glass cases to contain the historical documents. After Borglum’s death, the unfinished chamber became a concealed secret. However, in 1998, four generations of the sculptor’s family were joined by monument officials in entombing a record of America within the vault’s granite walls. Under a 1,200-pound capstone, they placed 16 porcelain panels in a teakwood box printed with historical documents, images and information on the creation of the monument.