Bartholdi, Frédéric-Auguste

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Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi

French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) created the Statue of Liberty, the immense torch-wielding figure that rises out of New York Harbor as a welcoming beacon to the world.

The Statue of Liberty was designed as an expression of friendship and shared values between France and the United States, the work was planned as a gift from the French people to America on the one hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, but not erected in the harbor until a dozen years later. “It is a consolation to know that this statue will exist thousands of years from now, long after our names shall have been forgotten,” Bartholdi asserted on that day in 1886, according to Claudia Glenn Dowling in Life.

Bartholdi was born on August 2, 1834, in Colmar, Alsace, near France's southern border with Germany. His father, Jean-Charles Bartholdi, held a prominent position as counsellor to the prefecture of Colmar, but died when Bartholdi was two. A keen artist from an early age, Bartholdi began taking art classes during his teen years and moved from painting to sculpture. He went on to study under Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879), who had recently completed a restoration of Paris's landmark Notre Dame Cathedral, and also trained with Henri Labrouste (1801–1875), an architect who was trying out new methods of steel construction, which was a new and innovative building material at the time.

Visited the Pyramids

For the 1855 Universal Exposition in Paris, Bartholdi submitted a statue of Jean Rapp (1771–1821), a French general who served in the Napoleonic Wars. As the exhibition's opening date neared, however, Bartholdi's work proved too large to fit through the doors of the venue. Exposition officials gave him permission to leave it outside, and the enormous figure attracted a great deal of attention and favorable publicity for both the Universal Exposition and the young sculptor. It was later installed in Bartholdi's hometown of Colmar to great civic fanfare. Later in 1855, Bartholdi traveled to Egypt to quench his curiosity about some of the largest structures ever created by humans—the ancient Sphinx and Pyramids.

Over the next decade Bartholdi's career continued its impressive upward trajectory. He won several notable commissions and was awarded France's Legion of Honor. Like many liberal-minded Europeans, he was unnerved by the assassination of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) in 1865, viewing it as a blow to liberty in America. A friend of Bartholdi's, historian Edouard-Rene de Laboulaye (1811–1883), also expressed dismay over Lincoln's death, and over dinner one evening the two men discussed the possibility of some sort of gift that France might deliver to America on the upcoming centennial anniversary of her independence from Britain. The American Revolutionary War and its fight to end British tyranny had served as a source of tremendous inspiration for French revolutionaries who overthrew the monarchy in 1789 and installed a republican form of government.

Barred from Entering Colmar

Bartholdi and Laboulaye's plans were disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and the artist departed for National Guard service. His hometown of Colmar surrendered to German troops in the ten-month-long conflict, and much of the Alsace region was later absorbed into imperial Germany. New regulations made it impossible for him to return home—to either his studio or the home of his mother—for several more years, and so he settled in Paris. A month after the end of the hostilities, Bartholdi set sail for his first visit to the United States. The idea for a monumental statue to greet visitors came to him aboard his ship as it entered New York City's harbor, especially when he noticed a tiny, uninhabited island that seemed an ideal site for the base. Quickly, he sketched out a female figure with a crown of rays around her head, holding a torch aloft in one hand and clutching a tablet with the date of July 4, 1776, in the other. He called it Liberty Enlightening the World. It bore some resemblance to a figure he had already sketched for a proposed lighthouse for Egypt's Suez Canal back at its opening in 1867, which was an African-style female figure he titled Progress Bringing Light to Asia.

Bartholdi made a maquette, or small-scale sculptural model, of his proposed Statue of Liberty while in the United States, and introductions from Laboulaye paved the way for meetings with some influential Americans, among them the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Bartholdi traveled all the way to California and spoke to dozens of people about his and Laboulaye's proposal, and the end result was the establishment of a fundraising group, the Franco-American Union. It took several years, however, for the Union to raise the necessary funds.

Back in France in 1875, Bartholdi began working on what would be his largest statue in France, the Lion of Belfort. Perched near Belfort Castle atop a local hill, the work commemorated the town of Belfort's long standoff against a vastly superior number of German army forces during the Franco-Prussian War. Pierre Philippe Denfert-Rochereau (1823–1878), the commander of the local French garrison, was hailed as the “Lion of Belfort” for his leadership, and Bartholdi's statue, made of pink sandstone, mythologized Denfert-Rochereau as a wounded but still fierce lion guarding the town.

Arm Caused Sensation in Philadelphia

While working to complete the Lion of Belfort in 1880, Bartholdi returned to his plans for the Statue of Liberty. Realizing that such a monumental figure would need a steel frame for its body of copper sheeting, he enlisted the help of Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923), a respected French bridge builder who later in the decade would create the Paris landmark tower that bears his name. Bartholdi and his team of assistants began the actual sculpting process in the Paris workshop of Gaget, Gauthier and Company. By 1876, her arm and the torch were finished, and were shipped to the United States in time for display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition that summer. Visitors could climb inside and walk along the balcony surrounding the torch, and nearly ten million did so; the sheer size of the project and its novelty boosted the Franco-American Union's fundraising efforts immensely. Bartholdi accompanied the arm and torch to America, and the visit was also notable for his wedding to Jeanne-Emilie Baheux at the Newport, Rhode Island, home of John LaFarge. A highly regarded artist and writer, LaFarge had a New York City workshop in which Bartholdi's first Statue of Liberty maquette had been cast several years earlier.

In 1878 Lady Liberty's head was finished and exhibited at the Paris World's Fair. The seven points of its diadem, or crown, represent both the seven seas and the seven continents. The assembly process formally began in 1881, and was stalled for a few years because the fund-raising effort in America had not yet collected enough to erect the pedestal. “Ingrates grumbled about gift horses, pagan goddesses, revolutionaries and bad taste,” wrote Dowling. “One suggested that the statue be immersed upside down in Central Park's reservoir. Everyone except New Yorkers felt that New Yorkers should bear the cost.” The statue's strong classical inlfuence, which paid homage to the era of antiquity when Greek and Roman figures achieved their most impressive artistic perfection, was also somewhat controversial. Bartholdi seemed to have modeled his after a Roman goddess called Libertas. As Barry Moreno, author of The Statue of Liberty Encyclopedia, told New York Times journalist Glenn Collins, back then some “Roman Catholics objected to New Yorkers making obeisance to a 151-foot-high heathen goddess smack in the middle of New York Harbor.”

Arrived to Major Fanfare

Bartholdi's statue was finished in January of 1884, and six months later a formal presentation of it was made to the American ambassador in Paris on July 4. It was then disassembled, packed into 214 cases, and loaded onto the frigate Isere. It arrived in New York on June 17, 1885, and was greeted by a crowd of 100,000. Journalists were allowed aboard the Isere to see the crates before they were unloaded. “The hold of the vessel was a curious sight,” wrote a New York Times correspondent. “The diadem was in an arched frame large enough for a horse and wagon to drive under …. The eyes and nose filled one crate, the forehead another, an ear and part of the crown another, until every foot of space seemed to be utilized. A sheet iron curl looked large enough for the smokestack of a small steam launch. A sailor said that it was 8 feet long.”

The pedestal had yet to be completed, however, and finally newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911) launched a campaign on the pages of his New York World, offering to print the names of anyone who sent in a donation. The dedication of the State of Liberty finally took place on October 28, 1886, presided over by President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908), all of his cabinet, and numerous French dignitaries. Bartholdi was present, too, and rejoiced to see the completion of his long-awaited project. It stood 151 feet in height from the foot to the top of the gold-plate torch, and weighed 225 tons. Years later, inside the visitors' center, a plaque was installed that was inscribed with the lines from The New Colossus, a poem by American writer Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), written back in 1883 during the fundraising campaign. It reads, in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” By then, the Statue of Liberty was becoming a symbolic beacon for thousands of new immigrants who arrived weekly in New York City from all over Europe. Conversely, the statue also came to symbolize American imperialism abroad in political cartoons.

Bartholdi completed a few other impressive statues, none of them as grand as the Statue of Liberty, before he died of tuberculosis on October 4, 1904, in Paris. A century later, some historians disputed the story that Lady Liberty was meant as a purely noble gift from France to the United States to celebrate their shared respect for democratic values. Those familiar with the writings of Laboulaye—who played an important role in the planning and even the design of the statue—argued that it was more a statement against monarchy and slavery. Art historian Albert Boime told Collins that “as a gift, it was more accurately an instrument of statecraft on the French and American sides, intended to heighten interest in trade and to call attention to French technology.” Nevertheless, Bartholdi's best-known work remains one of the most recognizable symbols on earth. “The Statue of Liberty may well be the single most seductive structure erected anywhere in the world during the past hundred years,” declared John Russell in the Smithsonian. “It has a great location. It has stood up to everything that wind and weather can throw at it. It is part of a universal folklore. Yet when seen at firsthand, it never fails to astonish.”


Life, July 1986.

New York Times, June 18, 1885; October 28, 2000.

Smithsonian, July 1984.

Bartholdi, Frédéric Auguste

views updated May 29 2018

Bartholdi, Frédéric Auguste (1834–1904) French sculptor His most famous piece is Liberty Enlightening the World (The Statue of Liberty) in New York harbour, dedicated in 1886. His most famous piece is Liberty Enlightening the World (The Statue of Liberty) in New York harbour, which was dedicated in 1886. The colossal Lion of Belfort at Belfort, France, is considered his best work.

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Frederic Auguste Bartholdi

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