At the heart of symbolism

A breath of freedom


Portrait of Auguste Bartholdi

A being deprived of his native soil

Frédréric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) was born in Alsace, in an affluent family of Colmar. After the premature death of his father in 1836, his mother left for Paris with her two sons. She regularly returned to the family property during the school vacations. While he was studying, Auguste Bartholdi showed an aptitude for drawing and revealed his gifts for sculpture. Let us mention that his mother always supported him in his vocation and artistic choices.

In 1855-56, he undertook with friends a long trip to the East during which he discovered the Egyptian civilization and realized remarkable sketches, drawings and photographs. Confirmed in his vocation, he came back to his birth place where he began a career as sculptor and elaborated his first monument dedicated to General Rapp, native of Colmar. Between competitions and orders, he moved within political and artistic circles and built up his international reputation as sculptor. During these meetings, he made Édouard de Laboulaye's acquaintance, a fervent republican opposed to Napoleon III and a great admirer of the American democracy.

1865 marked the end of the American Civil War and the announcement of the creation of the United States of America. Shortly after the death of Lincoln, Laboulaye proposed, to influential people, to build a monument commemorating the bonds uniting France with the United States. The prospect of the celebration of the centenary of the American nation in 1876 was too favorable to let it slip. As the Empire was not encouraging the glorification of freedom, the project remained dormant.

In 1867, Ferdinand de Lesseps planed the building of the Suez Canal, a huge undertaking. Bartholdi went to Egypt and proposed to erect, at the entrance of the canal, a statue able to reflect the importance of the event. It had to represent an Arab woman wearing a flame. The statue never came out; it was supplanted by a sculpture of Ferdinand de Lesseps.

During the French-Prussian war of 1870-71, Bartholdi was officer of the National Guard, aide-de-camp of General Garibaldi and liaison officer for the government. The attendance of Garibaldi, the lost of Alsace (less Belfort) and a part of Lorraine and the events of the Commune of Paris opened his eyes on the Republic (from the Latin res publica or public matter). He decided to glorify freedom while awaiting to rediscover his native soil one day. It was at that time that he undertook his two most famous works:

  • The “Lion of Belfort” (1872-1880), sculpted in a cliff, to commemorate the heroic resistance of the town when the Prussian besieged it;
  • The statue of “Liberty enlightening the world” (1870-1886) to celebrate the French-American friendship and designed for the entry of the harbour of New York.

The project resembled, in a striking manner, to the model intended for the entrance of the Suez Canal and entitled “Egypt enlightening East”. This coincidence did not happened by chance if we think to the influence of the Egyptian tradition on the constitution of the United States (for more of details, see the dollar).

In 1871, he went on a trip to the United States to consolidate the French-American friendship and to personally choose the site where the famous statue would be erected. Welcomed with open arms, thank to the mediation of Laboulaye, he met fortunate people and even General Grant who had become president. He got to know the American way of life and exerted himself to make his project a success and to find funds. France had to finance the construction of the statue without any government assistance and the United-States the erection of the pedestal.

Life-sized torch of the statue of libertyIn 1875, Laboulaye announced the creation of the French-American Union and became its president. The institution of the Republic in France opened the gates of freedom. There was no more than a year to build and finance the statue in view of the celebration of the American independence. Auguste Bartholdi knew very quickly that he would not reach it. He contented himself with the presentation of “the hand and the torch” to the world fair of Philadelphia. Visitors were enthusiastic and ready to pay to climb inside the arm up to the torch and see the buildings all around. Auguste married the future Jeanne-Émilie Bartholdi meanwhile.

Auguste Bartholdi came back from his American trips with superb water coloured drawings of native populations, visible today in the museum of his native town.

Life-sized head of the statue of libertyIn 1878, Bartholdi took advantage of the world fair of Paris to show the life-size head of the statue. Its colossal proportions inflamed the crowds. People were numerous to climb inside the head and look through its crown. Bartholdi undoubtedly knew how to create an event and generate enthusiasm. The contributions were flooding in from all parts of France and the construction could continue. After the resolution of problems related to the structure of the building, the statue was rising up in the Parisian sky and stirred up people's curiosity. General Grant came to Paris in 1879 and visited the workshops of the construction of the statue. On the last day of his presidency, he offered the island intended for the statue to the American committee of the French-American Union. From that moment, there was no further impediment to the construction of the pedestal entrusted to the architect Richard Morris Hunt, who had studied in France. The first stone containing a copy of the declaration of independence was laid.

Édouard Laboulaye died in 1883 and, ironically, the presidency of the French-American Union returned to Ferdinand de Lesseps. The statue was completed in 1884 and dominated the roofs of Paris.

Ready to be dismantled, the statue could finally be shipped to the United States. However, the construction of the pedestal had to be interrupted due to lack of funding. As the contributions of large fortunes were lacking, the boss of the newspaper “World”, Joseph Pulitzer, launched a popular subscription to collect the missing funds. Without waiting for the end of the construction of the pedestal, the boxes containing the parts of the statue were loaded on a ship and sent to New York by the French government. It was its only contribution to the project. After a turbulent crossing, the ship entered New York harbour on June 17th, 1886 and the statue was inaugurated on October 28th of the same year in the presence of official bodies only.

The monuments created by Auguste Bartholdi testified to his fame as a sculptor, in Europe as well as in Northern America: “Grave of the National Guards” (Cemetery of Colmar, 1872); “The four steps of the Christian life” (Boston, 1874); “Vauban” (Avallon, 1873); “Champollion” (Paris, 1875); ”Fountain of water and electricity” (Washington, 1876); “La Fayette” (New York, 1876); “Gribeauval” (Paris, 1879); “Rouget-de-Lisle” (Lons-le-Saunier, 1882); “Diderot” (Langres, 1884); “Gambetta” (Sèvres, 1891); “Christopher Columbus” (World fair in Chicago, 1893); “Washington and Lafayette” (New York, 1900); “Vercingétorix” (Clermont-Ferrand, 1903).

The monumental statues found their counterpart in less grandiose works such as busts, figures (“The little woman of Alsace with a tricolour bouquet”, Colmar, 1883) or works intended for the town of Colmar.

Auguste Bartholdi died in Paris in 1904 before his native soil recovered freedom. The town of Colmar inaugurated a monument to his memory in 1907. His widow bequeathed to the town the family house that became a museum in 1922.

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