Lady Liberty –
What’s in a Face?
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on the blog "Our Lady Liberty" as Part 2 of a 3-Part series titled "What's in a Face?". © June 23, 2009 by Dahni, all rights reserved.
Throughout this article, click on images to see larger versions of them.
Faces of sculptures are often influenced by models or familiar faces of which make an impression on the mind of the sculptor. Such is the case of the face of the Statue of Liberty.
In October 1855, Auguste Bartholdi accompanied a group of painters, on a four-month trip up the Nile in Egypt. Along the way, they visited the colossal statues at Abu Simbel and the massive temples at Thebes, about which Bartholdi wrote,
“We are filled with profound emotion in the presence of these colossal centuries-old witnesses of a past… at whose feet so many generations, so many human glories, have rolled in the dust.”
The artist sketched much of what he saw and took photographs, carefully recording visions of Egypt’s ancient monuments.
In recognition of this trip, Bartholdi wrote later,
“I congratulate myself for having traveled many roads and [having] been to much of the Orient from my very youth. If I have had some success, it is to this that I owe it…”
After returning to France in the summer of 1856, Bartholdi could not find projects of such monumental size and worked instead, on modest works in parks and the square of his native town of Colmar, France. Monuments to construct were gone from him, but not forgotten.
In 1865, Bartholdi was a dinner guest of Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, who hosted the affair. Over dinner they discussed their admiration of how the Americans had resisted oppression and succeeded in winning their freedom. It was the same type of democracy they were seeking for their own country. Laboulaye commented in light of our centennial just 11 years hence:
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people in France gave the United States a great monument as a lasting memorial to independence and thereby showed that the French government was also dedicated to the idea of human liberty?"
In 1867, Bartholdi went to see the viceroy of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, who was visiting Paris during the Universal Exposition, and proposed a colossal statue be erected at the entrance of the Suez Canal, then nearing completion.
He envisioned this statue in the form of an Egyptian female fellah (peasant), holding aloft a torch, the statue was to symbolize Ismail Pasha’s efforts to modernize Egypt and would be called:
“Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia.”
[Editor's Note: The English translation for this caption is, "The lighthouse project at Suez (watercolor by Bartholdi): a familiar concept... © Bartholdi Museum, Colmar, reproduced C. Kempf"
The statue was also to serve as a lighthouse – recalling the Pharaonic Lighthouse of Alexandria, another of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and in appearance drew heavily on yet another ancient “wonder” – the Colossus of Rhodes, which in tradition appears carrying a flame, thought to serve as a beacon.
Perhaps encouraged by his visit with the viceroy, Bartholdi over the next two years submitted several designs in hopes to build this in time for opening the Suez Canal. In 1869 he spent several months in Egypt, seeking support for his designs.
Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal cautioned Batholdi that there was not sufficient finances to fund his project. He was proven right and Bartholdi’s statue was rejected, simply due to the lack of money.
Bartholdi returned to France, but later insisted that the Suez project ended there and its similarity to the Statue of Liberty was a mere coincidence. But this clearly was not the case. The face of Liberty is where symbolism and much speculation merge; fuse and blur.
The original idea was intended as a gift from France to the United States in celebration of its first 100 years as a nation. France too, was fighting for its own liberation. The United States was most recently finished with its war among the states and slavery was abolished.
Since as early as 1738, the United States began to use in poetic symbolism, the deity of Columbia, supposedly taken from Christopher Columbus. The meaning may be understood as “land of (or discovered by), Columbus”
Columbia as a quasi-mythical figure, first appears in the poetry of Phillis Wheatley starting in 1776 during the revolutionary war:
“One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia‘s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia‘s arm prevails”
Especially in the 19th century, Columbia would be visualized as a goddess-like female and the national personification of the United States.
The twin ideas of Progress (Egypt), and Columbia (United States), are clearly combined into the Statue of Liberty.
The image of the personified Columbia was never fixed, but she was most often presented as a woman between youth and middle age, wearing classically draped garments. Often she was decorated with the stars and stripes. Her headdress though varied, is most often seen as a laurel wreath or a cap of liberty.
If the idea of a statue was planted in the mind of Bartholdi by Laboulaye in 1865, why did he not immediately set to work on it for the United States? My belief is that as an artist, the last thing you want to do is seek funding for your ideas. An artist would rather receive a commission. From his trip to Egypt in 1855 and in 1869, Bartholdi sought support of his designs for the Suez Project. But, what was the face of “Egypt (or Progress), Carrying the Light to Asia?”
The designs were that of a young fellah (peasant) woman. Many Egyptians were dark skinned, most likely from ancient Egypt’s conquering of the Nubian people, popularized in the modern musical, Aida.
Bartholdi’s insistence that the ideas for the statues for Egypt and the United States were just coincidental seems highly unlikely. According to Bartholdi’s own published account, written in 1885, the seeds for Liberty were, in fact, sown by Laboulaye as early as 1865. But the first hints of the project in Bartholdi’s private papers appear, only in December 1869, which was just a few months after his trip to Egypt had failed to receive funding. Then he went America in 1870. It would therefore appear that upon returning from Egypt in the fall of 1869, Bartholdi sought to convert failure into success by re-directing his Egyptian project toward the 1865 U.S. idea of Laboulaye.
The convergence of ‘Suez Progress’ and the ‘New York Liberty’ can be seen in what appears to be the earliest model for Liberty, dated 1870. Its torch-lifting pose closely resembles the Egyptian project, but it is identifiable as Liberty by its classic costume and by the broken fetters at its feet. But what of her face?
Many researchers are investigating reports that Lady Liberty was originally intended to be a monument to emancipated black slaves. Examinations of a 21-inch model of the statue on permanent display at the Museum of the City of New York and a terra cotta model, may suggest she was designed after the likeness of a black woman. What appears to be a broken chain is seen around its left hand. The 21-inch model, completed by Bartholdi around 1870, stands next to a model of the actual statue, which features a similar broken shackle on its foot.
- You may go and see the original model of the Statue of Liberty, with the broken chains at her feet and in her left hand. Go to the Museum of the City of NY, Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street (212) 534-1672 or call the same number and dial ext. 208 and speak to Peter Simmons and he can send you some documentation.
- Check with the N.Y. Times magazine, part II May 18, 1986.
- The dark original face of the Statue of Liberty can be seen in the N.Y. Post June 17, 1986. Also, the Post stated the reason for the broken chains at her feet.
- Finally, you may check with the French Mission or the French Embassy at the U.N. or in Washington, D.C. and ask for some original French material on the Statue of Liberty, including the Bartholdi original model.
Laboulaye’s concern as expressed in the May 1984 issue of the airline magazine Pam Am Clipper was for “a monument to send as a gift to abolitionists in recognition of the end of slavery in the U.S.”
At some point, it is suggested that a statue showing a liberated slave might be thought of as offensive or too painful a reminder to many in the United States. In a larger and more finished version of this 1870 model, now in the Museum of the City of New York, the radiant crown is already prepared, but Bartholdi seemed to be still uncertain about what to put in Liberty’s left hand. He later substituted a broken chain for the vase of the earlier model. The chains in the finished work appear broken at her feet. The tablet would also, only appear in the final design.
In 1871, Bartholdi put forward a bold proposal, his presentation of a great statue to the United States, a statue that would symbolize freedom and liberty. His final design was patented in 1879, but the statue would not be completed until 1886. However, the controversy continues even now.
Bartholdi claimed in a newspaper interview that,
“At that time my Statue of Liberty did not exist, even in my imagination, and the only resemblance between the drawing that I submitted to the Khedive (for the Egyptian project), and the statue now in New York’s beautiful harbor is that both held a light aloft.”
But consider the many similarities. The Egyptian project was called, “Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia?” The liberty project was called, “Liberty Enlightening the World.”
The Egyptian influence on his thinking is Bartholdi’s original idea for Liberty’s pedestal. He envisioned his monument set atop a massive pyramidal base.
Comparing clay models of the failed Suez lighthouse with the early renderings of Liberty show, Bartholdi must have just dusted off the early ideas that did not work, for the one that would.
In both the Suez Progress and the original idea for the New York Liberty, the lighthouse beacon was not planned for the torch, but was to radiate from the forehead of the figure. The torch was to be only symbolic.
When questioned about the similarities between the two projects, Bartholdi seemed to evade the facts that both were to be, colossal, robed, and torch-bearing females as lighthouses. Both were to be located, at key points astride major waterways of the world, symbolizing twin deities in the 19th century pantheon – Liberty and Progress. Both were to convey their message from one continent to another.
Bartholdi even claims at one point to have never executed anything for the Khedive, (for the Egyptian project), except the features of a female fellah (peasant). In another statement he insists that he did only a little sketch which has remained in the Bartholdi museum in France. But there were a series of models and sketches over a two year period when he tried to get a commission for his Egyptian statue.
In another newspaper interview, Batholdi said, “Now… how is a sculptor to make a statue which is to serve the purpose of a lighthouse without making it hold the light in the air?”
There is no doubt that both statues were to be beacons or lighthouses. There is no controversy that both were to hold aloft a torch. Whether or not the crown was to radiate the light or the torch is not important. All the arguments suggesting the dissimilarity between the two projects only prove their similarity.
It may appear that Bartholdi merely used designs for the Suez project to seize the opportunity for ‘Liberty,’ to just satisfy his desire to build a ‘colossal,’ monument. But he was himself, in words and in deeds, a genuine supporter and lover of liberty and freedom.
Bartholdi served as chief of staff of the Paris National Guard during the Franco-Prussian war. He unsuccessfully coordinated the defense of his own town of Colmar, France. Later he was aide-de-camp for Garibaldi. Then he joined the army of the Vosges, which under the command of the Italian, Condottiere, attempted a final stand at Côte d’Or.
For Bartholdi, the Statue of Liberty was a cause and an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream. This devotion caused him to spend more than a decade on what seemed a hopeless cause. Though he lived to see his dream come true, which brought him a measure of fame, it was nearly financially, a profitable failure.
It is a fitting testimony to liberty, that in the ‘face’ of so many odds, so much struggle and so much controversy, the Statue of Liberty came to be!
But whatever the original face of Liberty was, how did her face become that of a European Caucasian woman?
Used by permission.
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About me: My wife Susan and I are owners of several businesses. I am also an artist, composer, poet, photographer, and a writer. Perpetual student of life and people. I love working with children and open-minded adults.
A note on my writing: I am a former investigative reporter and published journalist. I am very versed in the proper protocols of conducting research, citing and documenting sources and the rules of journalism for print. Although my every entry do reflect my beliefs, they should be taken as editorials and not as straight reporting of the facts. Any reference given is solely for the purpose that the reader may explore other material and not merely to document my sources and to verify my positions with outside sources.
Just I-magine — and from the mirror your reflection speaks to you!
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Do you freak out or say, “Right, I like you too!” ???
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