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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi

One of the most unforgettable moments in any movie I have ever seen occurred near the end of a classic Charleton Heston epic set a thousand years in the future. Heston, a marooned astronaut on horseback, rides along a deserted beach exploring an unfamiliar planet. Suddenly, as he rounds a cliff, to his dismay and despair, there looms up before him a giant, greenish, metal relic of a bygone age.  For the first time he realizes that he has not landed on some upside down world where apes rule and men are hunted like animals, but on his own Earth, several hundred years after a nuclear war has devastated the human population and left the simian survivors to evolve their own higher intelligence and peculiarly superstitious society. What brings this all home to him is, of course, the arm, torch, and upper torso of the Statue of Liberty; cut to a close-up of our hero in anguished horror, fade to black, the end.

Bartholdi's original patent etching
Few symbols could elicit such gut-wrenching, ironic drama. Lady Liberty and her torch stands next to the Washington Monument, St. Louis's Gateway Arch, Mount Rushmore, and the Golden Gate Bridge as gigantic symbols of America. But all these pale in comparison to the beloved symbolism this monumental American logo bears for millions of Americans, many of whom, past and present, took the words of Emma Lazarus, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." quite literally. Lady Liberty is, herself, an immigrant. She was born in Paris around 1881, the brainchild of the noted French sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. She grew over an iron framework designed by Bartholdi's friend, Gustave Eiffel, and bore a striking, if slightly metallic, resemblance to Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People and the sculptor's own mother. Though basically conceived as a noble lady wearing a toga, holding aloft a lighted torch in the manner of a sculpted lighthouse, Miss Liberty went through quite a number of clay permutations before she donned her spiked crown and stone tablet bearing the date, July IV, MDCCLXXVI.

Stereoscopic image of Liberty's arm and torch, American Centennial Exposition, 1876
Bartholdi was born in Alsace, a border province of France, in 1834. When he was two, his father died so his mother took Auguste and his brother to Paris where he quickly displayed an interest in art. Initially he studied painting, then a little architecture, and finally decided he liked best to sculpt.  His early commissions were Napoleonic war heroes and marble busts. He embraced a military career during the Franco-Prussian War but after a number of unfortunate personal incidents, not to mention France's defeat at the hands of Germany in the war, he left his homeland with a bad taste in his mouth for a three month sojourn to America where he enjoyed a whirlwind tour and the opportunity to promote an idea that had bedeviled him for more than ten years.

Liberty's head on display in Paris, 1878
What Bartholdi proposed was a gift, a symbol of his country's appreciation for the close political, military, and cultural friendship they'd shared for a hundred years, and a token of the esteem the French held for the American ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice, not to mention our love of the grandiose. His idea received a warm reception from the powers that be at the time. A site was chosen, and Bartholdi hustled back to Paris to raise the needed $400,000 to create his masterpiece. It was supposed to have been done in time for the American Centennial celebration in 1776. Alas, it arrived some ten years late, but the forearm, and the symbolic torch of liberty did arrive in time and were used to inspire fair goers at the American Centennial Exposition (above) in the effort to raise the $225,000 needed for the base. It would seem the arm and torch also inspired another Frenchman, the writer Pierre Boulle, author of Monkey Planet, the novel upon which was based the movie, Planet of the Apes.

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