Borglum was born in a log cabin near Bear Lake, Idaho on March 25, 1867, the son of Danish immigrants. After growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, he was educated in a Jesuit school in Kansas. At age 17 he went with his family to Los Angeles where he worked as a lithographer and in his leisure began sketching cowboys, Indians and western scenes. He studied in San Francisco during 1885-88 with Virgil Williams at the School of Design, Wm Keith, and Elizabeth Jaynes Putnam whom he married in 1889. The couple moved to Paris for further art study at Académie Julian and Ecole des Beaux Arts. In Paris he began studying painting but soon turned to sculpting, and while there was greatly influenced by Rodin. Borglum exhibited both oils and sculpture of western themes at the Paris Salons of 1891 and 1892, and by 1895 had achieved an international reputation.
In 1902, Borglum returned to the U.S. and his white stone bust of Lincoln was placed in the rotunda of the Capitol. He had studios in New York; Raleigh, North Carolina and San Antonio until 1937 when he bought a home in Santa Barbara, California. He died in Chicago on March 6, 1941 while on a speaking tour and was entombed in the Court of Honor at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California. His most famous work, done from 1927 until 1941, is the heads of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt at Mt Rushmore. Over 60 feet high and blasted out of solid granite, his son, Lincoln, finished the work in 1945.
Borglum met John Ruskin in Leeds, England. John Ruskin was an eminent critic and was bundled up in his greatcoat and a blanket during Borglum’s visit. The artist took advantage of the visit by developing several sketches of Ruskin with the desire of one day turning them into sculpture. A final small statuette of Ruskin was finished after Borglum’s return to America in 1902. Although Ruskin had passed away two years before, his steady gaze and alert visage remained alive in Borglum’s mind. In preparing the sculpture, he emphasized the expressive hands and flowing beard and mane, while hiding the frailty of the body within the folds of clothing. Even though the piece is less than 15 inches high, it feels massive, like a block of stone and presages his later colossal sculpture.
Borglum rushed this work, as well as six other pieces, to completion in order for them to be shown at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. This World’s Fair in St. Louis followed closely upon the heels of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the 1901 American Exposition in Buffalo. At these international exhibitions, the fine arts played a dominant role and artists gained exposure to a huge buying public. Without question Borglum knew that a sculpture of Ruskin, who was lionized on both sides of the Atlantic, would lead to the sale of several replicas. Indeed this was the case, and casts are now found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
When Borglum originally created a plaster model of John Ruskin, there was little concern about the translating its massive quality into a thin-shelled bronze. This was only possible, however, by great advances in the lost wax technique of bronze casting in America. The leading foundry for this type of casting was the Roman Bronze Works in New York, which was established only a few years prior. Their artisans were the first to be able to achieve successfully, as seen in this early cast, the production of such a large continuous surface without seams.
David Bernstein, Stonybrook, NY
Rodin and America: Influence and Adaptation 1876 – 1936, Iris & Gerald B. Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, October 2011 – January 2012
Antoinette Lenormand-Romain, Rodin and America: Influence and Adaptation 1876 – 1936 , ed. Bernard Barryte