By John Algeo, National President
What has Helena Petrovna Blavatsky got to do with Mount Rushmore, Stone Mountain, and Saint John the Divine? The answer to that question can be found on one wall of the Meditation Room at Olcott, the national center of the Theosophical Society in America, Wheaton, Illinois.
Upon the north wall of that room hangs a painting of Blavatsky made by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor famous for reviving the Egyptian and Babylonian art of creating gigantic statues in living rock as commemorations of public figures. The story behind that painting is recounted in some old journal articles and in a letter from the sculptor himself.
But first some information about Borglum. John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum (1867â€“1941) was the son of Danish immigrants. His father, James Borglum, came to Salt Lake City as a Mormon convert in 1864, together with his wife Ida. The next year her sister Christina joined them, and James married both sisters according to Mormon religious practice at that time. The Church sent them to the Idaho territory, where Gutzon was born to Jamesâ€™s second wife. Two years later, the Borglums left the Mormon Church, and eventually, because of the laws against polygamy, Gutzonâ€™s mother left him with his father and sought a different life for herself.
When he was seventeen, Gutzon moved with his family to California, where he discovered a talent for art and began to train as a portrait painter. In his early twenties, he went to France to study and turned to sculpture. His works were displayed in prominent Paris salons, and he met Auguste Rodin.
In 1901, in his mid thirties, Gutzon settled in New York City. His work Mares of Diomedes won a gold medal at the 1904 Saint Louis Worldâ€™s Fair and was the first American sculpture added to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1907, he received a commission to create statuary for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, including statues of the twelve apostles. Abraham Lincoln was a favorite subject of Gutzonâ€™s, being treated by a marble head of Lincoln in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington and a bronze statue of the Seated Lincoln, for the 1911 dedication of which Teddy Roosevelt came to Newark, New Jersey. The following year, Gutzonâ€™s son was born and named Lincoln.
Just before World War I, Borglum was invited to create a monument to Confederate heroes on the side of Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, Georgia, but the start of the projectâ€”which was to depict General Robert E. Lee and his troops in processionâ€”was delayed until after the war. In the early 1920s, disagreements arose between Borglum and the sponsors of the Stone Mountain project, so eventually he withdrew, and other artists finally did the project, completing it in 1970.
Borglum moved to Texas in 1925 and turned his attention to what was to become his major work: the four presidents on the side of Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota. The head of George Washington was unveiled in 1930, the Jefferson head in 1936, the Lincoln head in 1937, and the Roosevelt head in 1938. The project was completed in 1941, the year Gutzon died, by his son, Lincoln Borglum.
The Borglum painting of Blavatsky was noted in Theosophical circles in 1930. In January of that year, the Theosophistmagazine (published then in Hollywood, California) had a reproduction of the painting as a frontispiece and a short article about it (51:475), including the following:
The photograph of Madame Blavatsky at the front of this issue is a reproduction of a portrait painted many years ago by Gutzon Borglum, at the time when his father was President of the Theosophical Lodge in Omaha, Nebraska.
When his father requested the portrait he first carefully prepared himself psychologically by reading and studying the teachings of H. P. B. and then secluded himself completely for three whole days: the splendid portrait is the result.
The article goes on to say that John Ingelman and May S. Rogers had raised money to buy the painting as a gift for Annie Besant.
The Path magazine of 1888 and 1889 has a number of references to Dr. J. M. Borglum, Gutzonâ€™s father. In 1888, he was vice president of the newly chartered Vedanta Theosophical Society in Omaha, Nebraska (3:27). At the national convention in Chicago on April 22, 1888, he was elected to the General Council or governing body of the Theosophical Society in America (3:67). By March 1889, he was serving as president of the Vedanta Theosophical Society (3:396). He was again a delegate at the national convention in Chicago on April 28â€“29, 1889 (4:62), and was reelected as president of the Vedanta Theosophical Society for 1890 (4:325). James Borglum was a leading member of the Theosophical Society in the period 1888â€“1890, about the time his son Gutzon was most productive as a painter.
About the same time as the article cited above, Gutzon Borglum wrote concerning the painting to J. G. Phelps Stokes, a New York City member of the Society (who had been recommended for membership by Beatrice Wood, an artist active in the Dada movement). A copy of that letter is affixed to the back of the portrait:
GUTZON â€“ BORGLUM
Menger Hotel, San Antonio, Texas
January 24, 1930
Dear Mr. Stokes:
Thanks for your letter of January 14th, and also for the information that you conveyed to me about the portrait of Madam Blavatsky.
Yes, I did paint that portrait some years ago. It ought to carry my signature but maybe it doesnâ€™t. Some time when I am in your neighborhood, I will be very glad to sign the work.
I made it at the time wholly and solely for my father, who was very much impressed by Madam Blavatsky and at that time, I remember, was very much interested in Theosophy.
Your letter was sent to me at Stamford, Connecticut, and forwarded here. I still have my home there but have not lived there for three or four years on account of the extent of my western work.
I expect to pass through New York some time in July on my way to Europe. I know that is a bad time to be in New York but shall try to let you know of my presence.
J. G. Phelps Stokes, Esq.
100 William Street
New York City
In December 1933, the American Theosophist (21:279), which also reported the death of Annie Besant that year, had the following bit of news:
Our members will be glad to know that Olcott has the privilege of being the home for the time being of the famous portrait of Madame Blavatsky painted by Gutzon Borglum.
[Following a reprint of much of the 1930 article cited above, the news note concludes:]
Following the death of the artistâ€™s father [in 1909] and the adjustment of the estate, Dr. Besant expressed the thought that the portrait should be in the possession of the Society. As a result of this suggestion several generous members combined together and made the purchase at a cost of about $1,000.
The painting, which at Dr. Besantâ€™s suggestion has been kept by Mr. and Mrs. Hotchener in their home, was recently shipped to Olcott where it will be a source of inspiration to many of our members.
The painting was probably done in or shortly after 1889, for it is modeled on a well-known photograph of H. P. Blavatsky, called the â€œSphinxâ€ picture, made on January 8, 1889, by the artist and photographer Enrico Resta (â€œ4, Coburg Place, Bayswater, London, W. Opposite the Broad Walk, Kensington Gardens,â€ as the back of one of the prints identifies the site of the studio). Several different, but very similar, pictures of the same pose seem to have been made that day. They were widely distributed, some with Blavatskyâ€™s autograph and inscriptions to the recipients, of which the Olcott archives include several. It seems likely that one of these photographs was sent to James Borglum during his presidency of the Vedanta Theosophical Society, and that James provided it to his son Gutzon as a model.
The painting has been at Olcott, and doubtless in its present location in the Meditation or Shrine Room (the latter term borrowed from our international headquarters at Adyar), since 1933. Its varnish has darkened considerably, as is apparent from comparing the painting today with the 1930 photograph of it; the painting is therefore due for cleaning to restore it to its original brightness.
There is but one worthy ambition for us all. Do better whatever we do. No matter how capable, we must work, think, study and do better. This alone leads to Mastery, Leadership and Independence.