In this bust by Gutzon Borglum, Abraham Lincoln's head seems to emerge from the rough-cut marble, an effect that can also be seen in the marble sculpture of Michelangelo and Borglum's friend Auguste Rodin. Borglum captured the distinctive features of Lincoln's face, including his deep-set eyes, his prominent lower lip, and even his wart. The proper left side of the head is almost impressionistically carved, with the ear barely defined. This difference between the two sides of Lincoln's face in the sculpture is an important part of the creative expression and personal style of the artist.
Borglum carved the bust directly from the block of marble rather than creating a copy of a plaster cast made from a clay model. The sculptor wrote in 1908: "It was cut directly into the marble by myself therefore there is no cast..." He was interested in the free expression that came from the direct carving, and his goal was to convey a sense of Lincoln's character and personality rather than to create a realistic portrait. Borglum wrote: "Lincoln's face was so much more developed on the right side that I have carved this head in the same way—that is developing that side..." An April 1908 article in The Craftsman elaborated on the distinction:
Mr. Borglum thinks that the right side of Lincoln's countenance was that in which the forcefulness of his character, his common sense, his executive capacity, his reasonableness, that is, his intellectual qualities, found chiefly their expression. But his gentleness, his tenderness, his bigness and warmth of heart, in short, his spiritual side, the artist thinks left is marks more upon the left half of his countenance...and the artist has given, from that point of view, an almost poignant impression of the tensity and weight of the man's inner life.
Robert T. Lincoln, the president's son, praised the bust in a letter to the artist on February 6, 1908: "I think it is the most extraordinarily good portrait of my father I have ever seen, and it impressed me deeply as a work of art which speaks for itself in the most wonderful manner."
Borglum carved the monumental bust in 1908, and it was donated to the Congress by Eugene Meyer, Jr., and accepted by the Joint Committee on the Library in the same year. The pedestal was specially designed by the sculptor and installed in 1911. The bust and pedestal were on display in the Rotunda for many years. In 1979, after a rearrangement of all sculpture in the Rotunda, they were placed on the floor below, in the Crypt at the center of the Capitol.
The sculpture is 40 inches high and weighs about 375 pounds. It is inscribed on the left side "Gutzon Borglum/1908." The pedestal is inscribed "Presented to Congress by Eugene Meyer, Jr. Of New York City."
Curator Charles Fairman wrote in 1927, "While the head of Lincoln is not completely separated from the mass of rock, enough has been done to create an art object which has met with the approval of thousands of visitors who have passed before this unique specimen of the art of Mr. Borglum."
Although the sculptor stated in 1908 that he wished the bust to be unique, a mold was later made and bronze casts of the bust are in the collections of the White House, the Chicago Historical Society, the College of the City of New York, the Tomb of Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, and the University of California, Berkeley.
Gutzon Borglum (1867–1941) is best known for his colossal sculptures of the heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. Born near Bear Lake in the Idaho Territory, he left home for San Francisco at the age of 12 and was apprenticed to a lithographer and then a fresco painter. He lived next in New York and subsequently in Paris, where he became a close friend of the sculptor Auguste Rodin; Spain; San Francisco; and London. He settled in New York City in 1901. Many of Borglum's works are large-scale public monuments. His first colossal-scale work, a memorial to the Confederate Army at Stone Mountain, Georgia, was halted by controversy. He began work at Mount Rushmore in 1927; the sculpture there was completed after his death by his son, Lincoln.