Mount Rushmore National Memorial, also known as the Shrine of Democracy, is a sculpture of the heads of four presidents of the United States: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson. The sculptor Gutzon Borglum supervised the carving of the four faces into a peak of a mountain located in South Dakota’s Black Hills (CyArk, 2013). Originally, the sculpture was to depict the presidents from the waist up but Congress decided to find the sculpture complete with the finished faces after the death of Borglum in 1941, followed by a refusal to continue funding due to the United States entering into World War II (Gambino, 2011).
Mount Rushmore is a high-relief statute, with each face still retaining contact with the mountain base material in the rear portions (“Relief Sculpture,” n.d.). The four faces each face a different direction. George Washington occupies the farthest most outward position and has the face most finished away from the base rock. To the right and slightly upward in the rock face is second face, Thomas Jefferson. Much farther back and downward is the third face, Theodore Roosevelt. Facing back toward George Washington, and therefore more on profile, is the fourth face of Abraham Lincoln (Figure 2).
The final positions of the faces were dictated by where suitable rock could be found. For example, Thomas Jefferson was meant to be to the left of George Washington, but the rock there was not well suited for carving, so he was placed on the right instead. This meant Abraham Lincoln had to be moved farther to the right. Additionally, the crews had to blast over 80 feet in from the original mountain surface in order to find suitable rock for Theodore Roosevelt. Thus, the positioning and various angles of the faces were more determined by the available rock suitable for carving than from artistic choice or symbolic meaning (Gambino, 2011).
Method of Execution
The sculpting of Mount Rushmore was a massive undertaking. It took fourteen years to complete, from 1927 to 1941. Over 400 drillers and assistant carvers worked under the direction of lead sculptor Gutzon Borglum. The sculptor worked off a 1:12 scale model that contained a vertical axis as a reference, for use in a process that had originated in ancient Greece. This process involved determining sculpture surface guide points by finding the distance and angle from the top of the axis to the guide position, then measuring the distance from the guide point into the axis line. Each guide point was scaled up and transferred onto the mountain and used to direct blasting (Carving the mountain, 2010). As described above, changes in face positions were incorporated as needed based on the availability of suitable rock for carving.
The initial clearing of stone was done using dynamite, where a great majority of the 1.7 billion pounds of stone that were cleared occurred. The initial blasting was followed by detailed drilling removed stone to within six inches of the intended finished surface. The final surfaces were done by hand carvers, using a two stage process with hand-held pneumatic hammers (Carving the Mountain, 2010). The final skin finish was done using a rotating, multi-diamond drill bit head buffing process (Gambino, 2011).
The final buffing provides a very smooth surface texture for the areas of the statute that are completely finished. To the back of the faces and down the statutes are less finished and therefore have a much more rough texture. Because of the exposure of the sculpture to the elements, dirt, grime, and lichens were present on the surface of the sculpture, obscuring some details. However, in 2005 a German company donated a power wash cleaning of the monument, which restored clarity to smaller details of the statute (CyArk, 2013).
The Mount Rushmore National Memorial was carved from a 400 foot tall by 500 foot wide east-facing wall of smooth, fine-grained granite (Figure 1). Geologists have estimated that there are 21 separate blocks of granite within the rock used for the statute. Cracks exist at each of the connections of these 21 blocks and can be seen on the surface of the statute. National Parks Service workers yearly refill them with silicone sealant to help preserve the statues (Carving the mountain, 2010).
Mount Rushmore is a sculpture of monumental scale. The faces are each 60 feet high, the eyes are 11 feet wide, the noses are 20 feet tall and the faces peer out from a 5,724 foot tall mountain (CyArk, 2013).
George Washington’s forward facing features provide the focal point of this sculpture. This is appropriate given his role as the one of the founding fathers of the United States and the nation’s first president.
Thus, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a sculpture most noteworthy for its monumental scale and for the enormous project organization required for its existence. In its creation, Borglum achieved not only a work of art but also a visual representation of national pride through his portrait of four men who had significant impact upon the first 150 years of the United States.
Figure 1. (Burnett, 2009).
Figure 2. (Franklin, 2003).
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Franklin, D. (2003 June 4). The Mount Rushmore Monument as seen from the viewing plaza. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from
Gambino, M. (2011 October 31). The making of Mount Rushmore. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved from
Relief Sculpture (n.d.). Encyclopedia of Art. Retrieved from