Lady Liberty: Repression, Art & Metaphor

Our lady love, the U.S. Statue of Liberty, was created through inspired repression, collaborative art and poetry–standing for defiant resistance, independence, and ultimate victory. She is magnificent, but how did she become a symbol for outcasts of the world–how did this art-piece evolve into such a grand living metaphor?

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Credit: New York Times, Hodgson photographer

This is a story of ideals, resolve, collaboration, a sculptor and a poet. It took 21 years for this idea to become a reality.

It was first proposed by Édouard René de Laboulaye (the president of the French Anti-Slavery Society) at a dinner in 1875: His idea was that the French finance the statue and the Americans provide the site and build the pedestal. Laboulaye was an ardent supporter of the Union in the American Civil War and said: “If a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort—a common work of both our nations.” He hoped that by calling attention to the recent achievements of the United States, “the French people would be inspired to call for their own democracy in the face of a repressive monarchy (of Napoleon 111).”

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Laboulaye by Nadar: He was the originator of the idea of a U.S. monument

Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor who was also at this dinner, was inspired by this “proposal” and it was he who pitched a massive sculpture design to influential people on his first trip to America. Bartholdi’s hometown in Alsace had just passed into German control, which motivated his own keen interest in independence, liberty, and self-determination. The statue would commemorate the centennial of American independence. When he arrived at the New York Harbor, he focused on Bedloe’s Island (now named Liberty Island) as a site for the statue because he was struck by the fact that vessels arriving in New York had to sail past it.

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Larger than life Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, Sculptor of Statue of Liberty in 1880

Bartholdi and Laboulaye considered how best to express the idea of American liberty.  A significant female icon in American culture was a representation of Liberty, derived from Libertas, the goddess of freedom widely worshiped in ancient Rome, especially among emancipated slaves. A Liberty figure adorned most American coins of the time. Also artists of the time commonly used Libertas as an allegorical symbol of republican ideals. A figure of Liberty was also depicted on the Great Seal of France. Bartholdi wanted the statue to have a peaceful appearance and chose a torch, representing progress, for her to hold.

Bartholdi made the first sketches for the statue during his U.S. visit and continued to develop the concept upon his return to France. He also worked on a number of sculptures designed to bolster French patriotism after the defeat by the Prussians. One of these was the Lion of Belfort, a monumental sculpture, to honor the locals’ persistent resistance of a Prussian siege. The defiant lion, 73 feet (22 m) long, displays an emotional quality characteristic of Romanticism, which Bartholdi would later infuse into the Statue of Liberty.

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Bartholdi’s Lion of Belfort

Bartholdi made alterations in the design as the project evolved. He initially considered having Liberty hold a broken chain, but thought it too divisive after the Civil War. Instead she rises over a broken chain, half-hidden by her robes. He finally settled on a keystone-shaped tablet for her left hand to evoke the concept of law. Although Bartholdi greatly admired the United States Constitution, he chose to inscribe “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI” on the tablet, desiring to associate the date of the U.S.’s Declaration of Independence with the concept of liberty. He decided on many details, such as a height of just over 151 feet (46 m) for the statue, and the symbolic seven rays in the crown representing the Earth’s seven seas.

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Bartholdi’s design patent

Bartholdi completed the head and the torch-bearing arm before the statue was fully designed, and these pieces were exhibited for publicity at international expositions. It was rumored in France that the face of the Statue of Liberty was modeled after Bartholdi’s mother.

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The statue’s head on exhibit at the Paris World’s Fair, 1878

In 1881 Auguste Bartholdi contacted an engineer named Eiffel to help him build the Statue of Liberty to withstand significant wind stresses. Eiffel devised a “spine structure” consisting of a four-legged iron pylon to support the copper sheeting which made up the body of the statue. Eiffel would later design the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

In 1885 the statue was formally delivered to America. Fundraising for the pedestal was difficult for the Americans, and by 1885 work on the pedestal was threatened due to lack of funds. A newspaper publisher named Joseph Pulitzer came to the rescue by urging the American public to donate money towards the pedestal. His newspaper, New York World, raised over $100,000 in six months, enough to finish the pedestal. The majority of contributors gave less than a dollar, securing Lady Liberty’s destiny as the people’s prize. Pulitzer published the names of each person–all 125,000–who made a contribution in his paper.

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Unpacking of the head of the Statue of Liberty, which was delivered on June 17, 1885

“The New Colossus” is a sonnet that American poet Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883 as a donation to help raise money for the construction of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. In 1903, the poem was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal’s lower level.

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Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

It is a stunning fact that Bartholdi’s gigantic effigy was originally intended as a monument to international republicanism–but a poet reinvented the statue’s purpose–turning Liberty into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world.

One immigrant who arrived from Greece recalled, I saw the Statue of Liberty and I said to myself, “Lady, you’re such a beautiful! You opened your arms and you get all the foreigners here. Give me a chance to prove that I am worth it, to do something, to be someone in America.” And always that statue was on my mind (Sutherland, Cara A. (2003).

In October 1886, the structure was officially presented as the joint gift of the French and American people, and was installed on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor. It was the largest work of its kind that had ever been completed up to that time. The statue’s completion was marked by a parade and a dedication ceremony presided over by President Grover Cleveland.

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Bedloe’s Island in 1927, showing the statue and army buildings. The eleven-pointed walls of Fort Wood, which still form the statue’s base, are visible.

There is a presentation tablet that honors “the Alliance of the two Nations in achieving the Independence of the United States of America and attests their abiding friendship.” A group of statues stands at the western end of the island, honoring the men and woman closely associated with the Statue of Liberty: Two Americans—Pulitzer and Lazarus—and three Frenchmen—Bartholdi, Eiffel, and Laboulaye—are depicted.

In 1984, the Statue of Liberty was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UNESCO “Statement of Significance” describes the statue as a “masterpiece of the human spirit” that “endures as a highly potent symbol—inspiring contemplation, debate and protest—of ideals such as liberty, peace, human rights, abolition of slavery, democracy and opportunity.”

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Liberty Island, credit photo by D. Ramey Logan

Lately our lady has been depicted as weeping or hiding her face in shame… so symbolic and dear she is to us! She is leveraged to express our emotion over distressing current events we fear will change what our country stands for. She is a most powerful metaphor.

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We should remember that this icon originated at an idea-inspiring anti-slavery French dinner, which motivated a sculptor to imagine a statue of a woman holding a torch burning with the light of freedom. The sculptor hoped this would also inspire his home country to freedom. It took 21 years for this idea to become a reality and a living, beautiful metaphor of freedom.

Please do share what the Statue of Liberty means to you. Many thanks especially to Wikipedia for helping me piece this story together!

Thank you for reading my post. My core message of ‘everyone is creative’ resonates with people of all ages and walks of life. I invite all to become–the best version of themselves and find true meaning by pursing long term creative quests–in my recent book and website.

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