Headstrong Artist Carved a Place in History
First-generation American artist Gutzon Borglum emerged onto the national scene when he carved into history the heads of four U.S. presidents on Mt. Rushmore, deep in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Although his earlier paintings and sculptures would be overshadowed by the mountainside known as the Shrine to Democracy, many of his works were crafted in Los Angeles and the town where he lived, Sierra Madre.
Like Mt. Rushmore itself, Borglum was a larger-than-life figure who demanded attention. Amid a career that spanned more than half a century, he carried on a romance with the California landscape, painting hundreds of seascapes, landscapes, crumbling mission exteriors, championship horses and a portrait of Gen. John C. Fremont, as well as sculpting a bust of Fremont’s wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, and the Los Angeles Times’ bronze eagle.
The artist was born John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum in Idaho on March 25, 1867. His father was a Mormon immigrant from Denmark who had married two sisters. When Borglum was 4, his father, a frontier doctor, left the church, discarding young Borglum’s mother so he could move back into society with only one wife and a brood of children.
Young Borglum, angry and rebellious, moved with his father and the rest of the family to Omaha, where he was reared by his stepmother-aunt.
In 1884, his father’s wanderlust led the family to Los Angeles. The father opened a medical practice and Borglum, 17, began a career as a lithographer’s apprentice and a fresco painter. He quit after six months, angry over what he considered a meager salary.
Determined to be a famous artist, he began to paint landscapes and portraits of the rich and famous. He gradually carved out a niche for himself, and opened his own art studio in the basement of The Times’ building on Broadway. There his art caught the eye of Times Publisher Harrison Gray Otis, who would later commission the Times eagle, which was emblematic of Otis’ motto: “Stand fast, stand firm, stand sure, stand true.”
The eagle weighs more than 200 pounds and has a wingspan of 7 1/2 feet. It perched atop three Times buildings beginning Dec. 5, 1891. In 1956, it was moved inside to protect it from decay, and today it graces the lobby.
Sharing a Studio
In the late 1880s, Borglum became attracted to a worldly woman named Elizabeth “Lisa” Putnam. She was an accomplished still-life artist and teacher, as well as a divorcee nearly twice his age. But she recognized his genius and encouraged him to go to San Francisco for study. When he returned in 1887, after less than a year under the tutelage of artist William Keith, Putnam invited Borglum to share her studio.
As he began to experiment with various painting styles, he attracted critics, friends, patrons -- and editor Charles F. Lummis, who saw in Borglum the promise of better things.
“His paintings had many shortcomings and showed his lack of education. Yet there was in them a creative breadth that promised to make him heard,” Lummis wrote in his magazine, Land of Sunshine.
Borglum believed that he would be famous before he turned 30. Putnam, his teacher, mentor and lover, shared his dream.
His portraits led to his first significant art commission, in 1888, when Jessie Fremont asked him to paint her husband, who had explored and mapped the West. In return, she gave Borglum letters of introduction to her prosperous friends, including railroad magnate Collis Huntington, former California Gov. Leland Stanford and young Theodore Roosevelt.
Fremont’s portrait proved valuable, earning Borglum the loyalty and support of Jessie Fremont, who was instrumental in furthering his career.
In 1889, Borglum, 22, married Putnam, 41, in Los Angeles.
That same year, he finished a 5-by-9-foot painting of a stagecoach drawn by six horses careening down a mountain road. “Staging in California,” considered one of his finest works, is at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.
The work earned him the backing of a socialite, Mrs. Spencer H. Smith, who bought many of his paintings, introduced him to her powerful friends and, in 1890, paid for his art training in Europe, where Borglum learned sculpting techniques under Auguste Rodin in Paris
In 1893, Borglum and his wife were lured back to L.A. by the climate and a commission for three landscapes from Stanford.
With four Great Danes in tow, the Borglums set up their studio in a cottage tucked amid grapevines and palm, pepper, orange and oak trees in the foothills of Sierra Madre on the northwest corner of Hermosa Avenue and Live Oak, now called Orange Grove Avenue. They called their four-acre ranch El Rosario, meaning the rose garden.
“There is enough beauty in nature here to keep me painting a lifetime,” Borglum said. The home was also close to Lucky Baldwin’s racehorses, which Borglum used as models for many paintings.
Lummis, the editor, introduced Borglum to his notable friends and his home, El Alisal. Borglum built the rock fireplace in the landmark house that Lummis crafted along the Arroyo Seco. Today, it is the home of the Historical Society of Southern California.
As more people began to recognize Borglum’s talent, he grew more self-confident and butted heads with Lummis, which led to a bitter feud. Each man believed he was an authority on art.
Borglum became downright bitter when Stanford unexpectedly died in 1893, leaving his financial affairs tangled. Borglum lost out on his $10,000 commission for the three landscapes.
Another blow came just before Thanksgiving in 1894, when he found all four Great Danes dead, poisoned by a mean-spirited neighbor.
By 1896, he was nearly 30 and nearly broke. His marriage was failing because his wife wanted a quieter life, while he was bursting with creative energy. Worse, with his self-imposed deadline approaching, he wasn’t famous.
So the Borglums returned to Europe, where he took London by storm, painting portraits of the rich and titled and attending lavish parties. But that interlude merely delayed the inevitable. After six years in Europe, he declared his marriage over and hopped on a ship for New York in 1902.
Crossing the Atlantic he met Mary Montgomery, 23, whom he would marry in 1909. The couple had two children. His former wife eventually returned to their homestead in Sierra Madre, where she continued to paint. She died in Venice, Calif., in 1922.
Borglum was more determined than ever to win renown. Within a 10-year span, he created a marble bust of Lincoln, which was installed in the Capitol rotunda; sculpted more than 100 pieces for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York; and crafted a monument to Civil War Gen. Philip Sheridan in Washington, D.C.
His penchant for outspokenness enraged the public, but the press loved him. He called one artist a “pinhead sculptor” and argued that most of the nation’s public monuments were “worthless and should be dynamited.”
“This is America’s colossal age,” he said, “and American artists should celebrate it.”
In 1915, the United Daughters of the Confederacy signed him to carve a now-famous tourist attraction, a 1,200-foot-long relief of Confederate soldiers on Georgia’s Stone Mountain.
When the Ku Klux Klan became the group’s major financial supporter, Borglum embraced the Klan, saying blacks had “eaten into the very moral fiber of our race character” and calling immigrants “slippered assassins,” despite his father’s roots in Denmark. Before completing the project, he was fired for his “offensive egotism and delusions of grandeur.” He smashed his models and bolted to South Dakota before authorities could catch him. The Stone Mountain work was completed by others, but not until 1970.
South Dakota, which had been courting Borglum, had decided that it too wanted a tourist attraction. So Borglum delved into politics, fighting for funding and struggling against personal bankruptcy and public indifference to build the monumental sculpture.
In 1927, he began to carve the 60-foot-high heads of four presidents: George Washington for the birth of the Republic, Thomas Jefferson for the idea of representative government, Abraham Lincoln for promoting a permanent union and equality, and Theodore Roosevelt for establishing the 20th century role of the U.S. in world affairs.
Borglum chose the subjects himself, dissuading South Dakota from using Sioux Indian Chief Red Cloud and scout Kit Carson, among others. Despite his earlier racist comments, the artist admired Lincoln and even named his son after him.
Borglum’s detractors called the project more an engineering feat than art. A New York critic opined that if he was going to destroy another mountain, “thank God it’s only in South Dakota.”
Of the $990,000 needed to create the Mt. Rushmore Memorial, $836,000 came from federal funds, even during the Depression. Much of the rest came from schoolchildren who donated pennies, nickels and dimes, while Borglum mortgaged his 500-acre Connecticut estate and pitched Studebakers and Bromo-Seltzer in radio ads. Borglum received $170,000 for the 14 years he spent on the project -- a little more than $12,000 a year.
As tough as the granite of his beloved mountain, he died of a heart attack a few days before his 74th birthday in March 1941. His son, Lincoln, finished the project later that year, just before the U.S. entered the war.
Borglum is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale in the Memorial Court of Honor. The four presidential heads of Mt. Rushmore are depicted in bronze on his plaque.
All that’s left of El Rosario is a stone fireplace. But Lizzie’s Trail Inn, a tiny museum in Sierra Madre, displays the palette on which he mixed his colors of California.