A breath of freedom
Frédréric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) was born in Colmar, in Alsace, within an affluent family. 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.
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 Colmar where he began a career as sculptor and elaborated his first monument dedicated to general Rapp, native of Colmar. Between competitions and orders, he built up his international reputation as sculptor.
During the war of 1870-71, he was officer of the National Guard, aide-de-camp of general Garibaldi and liaison officer for the government. When France lost Alsace (less Belfort) and a part of Lorraine, Bartholdi decided to glorify freedom while awaiting to rediscover his native soil one day. It is at that time that he undertook his two most famous works:
- 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 “Lion of Belfort” (1872-1880), sculpted in a cliff, to commemorate the heroic resistance of the town when the Prussian besieged it.
In 1871, he went on a trip to the United States to make the American French friendship real and to personally choose the site where the famous statue would be erected. The project might resemble, in a striking manner, another project for a statue intended for the entry of the Suez canal and entitled “Egypt enlightening East”. This coincidence would not have happened by chance if we think at the influence of the Egyptian tradition on the constitution of the United States (for more of details, see the dollar).
In 1876, year of the celebration of the American independence centenary, Auguste Bartholdi presented “The hand and the torch” at the world fair of Philadelphia and married the future Jeanne Émilie Bartholdi. He came back from his American trips with superb water coloured drawings of native populations.
His fame as a sculptor was well established, in Europe as well as in Northern America, as testified by his monuments: “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.