Friday, 6 September 2013

Preview: The Statue of Liberty

Over the years, I've been to or have hosted a few dinner parties, and so know that the key to making them work isn't really the decent food, or even the company, it's just tons and tons of booze. Invariably, the best dinner parties descend into a raucous drunkenness so that the best of the night becomes a haze and for which the next morning causes a lot of piecing together of what happened. Actual conversational details are long lost. Which is probably why at my dinner parties, things like this are never conceived:

The Statue of Liberty's origins can be traced back to a dinner party. It was held in 1865 by a French professor and anti-slavery activist called Edouard de Laboulaye. During proceedings, which I guess hadn't yet reached the nude wrestling stage of all the best dinners, the professor, a strong supporter of the Union during the American Civil War, happened to bring up an idea of his about building a monument to commemorate the United States' independence from the British Empire. He said, perhaps while chucking his sixteenth cognac of the evening down his throat, that this would be a gift from France, but also a joint venture between the two countries. Then he started hugging everyone, telling them they were his only friends. It had just been a throwaway comment, but in attendance had been a young sculptor called Frederic Bartholdi. And he'd been inspired. Yes! France and the US would build a monument to independence and freedom together, in the form of a gigantic torch-wielding lady! And Bartholdi would be the man to do this.

In fact, like so many of these tales, the truth is somewhat less concise. The earliest the story can be traced to is 1885, in a promotional pamphlet, and so possibly it's all a deliberate legend concocted by Barthholdi because the truth is more straightforward. And that is, Bartholdi really, really wanted to build a giant statue. Inspired in part by the age and size of the pyramids, Bartholdi was interested in sculpture on a much larger scale than usual, and in the late 1860s he'd approached the governor of Egypt suggesting he build a giant statue for them. It would be of a peasant woman, holding a torch aloft, with the theme of "Progress" or "Egypt carrying the light to Asia". Perhaps it could also serve as a lighthouse, paying homage to Egypt's lost World Wonder, the Lighthouse of Alexandra.

There was some interest in his idea, but it didn't go anywhere, and Bartholdi then found himself involved in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 (the same war that in many ways led to the Sacre-Coeur's construction). Paris fell in 1871, upon which Bartholdi resigned his position as an officer and went to New York. There, his idea resurfaced. Bartholdi claimed that both ideas were entirely unrelated to each other, but... come on. Two giant statues of women holding a torch? At least he tweaked his plan for New York - the woman was changed to a classical goddess, derived from the Roman goddess of freedom, Libertas, who was much worshipped by slaves in ancient Rome. She was a popular image in America at the time, adorning most coins. Bartholdi gave his statue a crown of seven spikes to symbolise liberation to the seven continents and seas, and called it “La Liberte Eclaimant le Monde” or “Liberty Enlightening the World”. And some time later, during Bartholdi's extensive promotional campaign, the tale of the dinner party with Edouard Labourlaye crept in. It sounded better than "I was just desperate to build a giant statue." Possibly there is some truth in it - Bartholdi had completed a bust of Laboulaye in 1866 and so certainly knew him. It's entirely likely they'd both been at a dinner party together and therefore not unreasonable that he provided the initial inspiration, even if the story only appeared years later.

Bartholdi did a lot of promotion and fundraising for his statue idea. It was announced publicly in France in 1874, and it would be a collaborative effort between the two nations - France would build the statue, and America would do the pedestal. A statue is notably more fun to build than a pedestal, and enthusiasm was far greater in France than in the US. By 1885, France was ready, with the statue ready for shipment in 214 cases. America was not.

How do you build a 46-metre-high statue? Any way you want, I suppose, but it's generally advised to approach it differently than you would a regular life-size statue. For a life-size statue, it's sculptural - all you need is a block of stone and a decent chisel. But taking this approach to a colossus would be both unimaginably heavy and unimaginably expensive. Instead, the statue is better as a skin over an internal framework. Copper was chosen, as it is light, easy to work with, would look good, and would be resistant to the salty air of New York's harbour. The method chosen was one called repousse - which involves hammering the copper from the inside. The Statue of Liberty's copper skin is an amazingly thin 3/32th inches (2.4mm) and so highly malleable. Draped over a framework, with moulded sections of the statue placed on the outside, the copper could be hammered into the moulded shapes. The Statue of Liberty was sculpted from the inside-out.

The head and torch-bearing arm came first, and were done by none other than this blog's number one man, Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (see Carcassonne, the Notre-Dame, and Amiens Cathedral for just some of the other world classic monuments he was involved in). Bartholdi had originally been his student, and convinced him to help. But he died in 1879 and there was still the big problem of the entire body. From one legend to the next - Viollet-le-Duc's successor was Gustave Eiffel. His famous tower was still in the future, but he was already an established bridge builder and structural engineer. These skills were applied to the statue - he constructed a colossal frame of iron and steel. Over this, hundreds of sheets of copper were draped, then hammered into shape. The statue was born - and then put in 214 boxes while waiting for America to get their end done.

America had had issues with enthusiasm and funding, and it took a French guilt trip and another famous name to spark them into life. A New York news publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, now famous for the eponymous prize, sparked a public interest by asking everyone to donate small amount, with every single contributor's name would be published in the New York World newspaper. Over 120,000 prople contributed, making the Statue of Liberty a real people's project in the end. The pedestal was eventually finished in April 1886, and the final statue unveiled on October 28th of that year. Standing on Bedloe Island (since 1956 officially Liberty Island, although effectively it was called that soon after the statue's arrival), about 1.5 miles away from Manhattan, the statue soon became an emblem of hope and freedom for immigrant arriving into New York.

Unlike her full name though, she didn't exactly "enlighten the world". Lady Liberty was originally built with the dual purpose of being a lighthouse, and was under control of the US Lighthouse Board. But she wasn't a very good one - the lights were too high and too dim - and by 1902 she was formally absolved of her lighthouse duties.

Probably, the Statue of Liberty today is the most famous statue in the world, and one of the most famous monuments. Much of this can be probably be put down to the popularity of American media - the statue has appeared very extensively in films and TV, and even has a sizable Wikipedia section dedicated to its various depictions of destruction. It's certainly one of these landmarks that has a level of fame that has entirely eclipsed its values. Is it big or beautiful or original or technically incredible? Maybe, but nobody ever really judges it on that. It's simply famous. I've been to New York a few times before, and have seen the statue a couple of times, including having visited the island once - I didn't go inside as the queue was too big. Like most people, my impression was "Ooh, it's the Statue of Liberty" and "it's not as big as I expected", but that latter assessment is a little unfair when it's made from the shores of Manhattan. Clearly, it seems bigger when standing beside it. Here's me, in 2003, while in my "windswept Scandinavian" phase.

As one of the most celebrated constructions around today, the Statue of Liberty would rate in anybody's shortlist for World Wonders. Surrounded by such a bubble of historic hype, it's quite difficult to see it with an entirely impartial mind. It's like judging your own baby in a beautiful baby contest; either you're blinded by parental love or become unduly critical to try and be fair to the other babies. I'm not saying that my feelings towards Lady Liberty are like those I have for my (as yet wholly fictional) firstborn, but I do know that I need to wipe my eyes clean of bias to give it a fair hearing.

And that'll be done, gosh, hopefully next year, likely later on. At which time I'll give a fuller account of it and its history, as well as a fair and unprejudiced account of my own impressions.

"How They Built the Statue of Liberty" Mary J. Shapiro
“Statue of Liberty: Wonders of Man” Oscar Handlin
“Statue of Liberty: Heritage of America” Paul Owen Weinbaum and Gweneth Reed Dendooven
“Statue of Liberty Encyclopaedia” Barry Moreno


  1. Fantastic blog - thanks so much for keeping it going.

  2. I have never seen the Statue of Liberty for real, although as I have mentioned before I swept through/past New York twice, enough to see some of it from a distance but not the statue (next time I will sweep past NY on a ship perhaps).

    I agree that it is incredibly symbolic of the USA, akin to the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben (sorry, St Stephen's/Queen Elizabeth tower), the Pyramids and various other structures that are a symbol (almost stereotypical) of the country they represent. For that alone I think that it deserves to be considered to be a modern world wonder.

    A few thoughts/comments:

    - Gustave Eiffel: has anyone else been involved in the construction of two of the most recognisable structures in the world? They should write that on his gravestone!

    - the base is actually an old military star fort

    - "Egypt carrying the light to Asia". A bit Eurocentric; although that was the context of the day. Mildly insulting to the ancient civilisations in Asia I would have thought!

    - there's a very big statue in the Ukraine (I think) that commerorates the USSR's WWII victory. Not as well known as this one however. Maybe it needs to figure in a few more disaster movies.

    - there is an urban legend in France that says that originally it was to be for Lyon, which sort of ties in with what you say about Bartholdi wanting to build a giant statue at all costs. Probably not true, but I like the idea of him going up to the mayor of Lyon at some kind of official ceremony, and trying to convince him that what his city really needed what a giant statue, like some kind of monumental statue hustler.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.