The Two Frenchmen Behind America’s Leading Symbol

Some 135 years after the inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, a nine-foot replica has been loaned from the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris and is on its way to New York. The model will be exhibited on Ellis Island from July 1 to 5 before moving to the gardens of the French embassy in Washington for the next ten years. However, not many people know that Bartholdi, the sculptor who made the statue, was actually helped by another genius of metal engineering: Gustave Eiffel.
© Kit Suman

On June 1, 1871, the Pereire, a boat owned by the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, arrived in the port of New York after a 13-day crossing. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a thirtysomething sculptor from Colmar in Alsace, stood on the deck watching the crowd and the steamships sailing across the bay. He was able to make out a few hills in the distance, Jersey City to the left and Brooklyn to the right, with little Bedloe’s Island lying in the center opposite Manhattan.

Bartholdi came to New York charged with a very special mission. Several years before, he had met Professor Edouard René Lefebvre de Laboulaye in Paris, and cast his bust in 1866. Laboulaye had written several works on America and was particularly fond of highlighting the friendship between France and the United States since the American War of Independence.

While at a dinner party, Laboulaye had suggested the idea of a monument gifted from the French to the Americans as part of the hundred-year anniversary of the Revolutionary War. Bartholdi supposedly replied: “I will fight for freedom; I will call on all the free peoples. I will try to glorify the republic in America, while I wait to be reunited with it once again in France!” The year was 1870, and Alsace and part of Lorraine had become German following Napoleon III’s defeat against Prussia.

The idea of a statue standing as a testament to Franco-American friendship began to form in Bartholdi’s mind. While on a trip to Egypt as a young man, he had seen enormous sculptures defined by simple yet powerful lines. He had dreamed of one day building a gigantic lighthouse shaped like a young woman wearing an ancient robe, with her right hand holding a torch. The image of the lighthouse slowly transformed, shifting from Egypt to New York, with the light of Liberty shining from the New World across to Old Europe.

Liberty’s Maternal Likeness

In the fall of 1871, Bartholdi returned to Paris and tried to drum up support for his statue project. However, he encountered two major problems: the logistics and the financing of such a gargantuan project. He also had to choose the face that would represent Liberty. He had of course seen Delacroix’s painting, Liberty Leading the People, but this vision of a sculptural woman in torn clothing standing on a barricade was too violent for his taste. What he really wanted was to depict a calm, serene Liberty, quietly aware of her strength. In the end, he drew inspiration from his mother, Charlotte Bartholdi, and lent the statue her classical features.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830. © Musée du Louvre

Bartholdi supposedly fashioned Liberty’s robe-clad body after Jeanne-Emilie Baheux, a young dressmaker from Nancy in Lorraine, whom he fell in love with and married in Rhode Island in 1884. He then scaled up his working model and sculpted a statue 38-feet high. This was later used as a model for the definitive statue, which was four times bigger!

The end result was monumental, standing at an impressive 150 feet. The nose alone was 4.6 feet long, the foot was 25 feet, and the waist measured 35 feet around! The head, which can house up to 35 visitors, is topped with a seven-spike crown symbolizing the seven seas and continents. This colossus was composed of some ten tons of copper and around a hundred tons of steel. The challenge then became how to erect it without the whole structure collapsing. After all, it would be exposed to all weather conditions imaginable. What’s more, the inside of the torch had to be accessible (the statue was actually used as a lighthouse until 1902), and the entire monument had to stand on a base fixed solidly into the rock to resist the wind.

Bartholdi approached the Gaget, Gauthier et Cie. workshops located near the Monceau Park in Paris. The company had already completed the roof of the Opéra Garnier, the archangel statue of Mont-Saint-Michel, and the bell tower of the Hôtel des Invalides. The sculptor also called on Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to design the framework, but the architect died in 1879 leaving the inner structure incomplete.

A Certain Monsieur Eiffel

It was around this time that Bartholdi approached an engineer who was just beginning to make a name for himself. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel had not yet built the renowned Parisian tower that would bear his name. Bönickhausen, better known as Eiffel, was born in Dijon in 1832, and had begun his career in construction in 1852 after graduating from the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures.

After spending several years in Southwestern France, where he oversaw works on the Passerelle Saint-Jean, a major railway bridge in Bordeaux, he started his own specialist metal framework company in 1864. His exceptional career was punctuated by the construction of the viaduct over the Douro River in Porto, the Pest train station in Hungary, the dome of the Observatory in Nice, and of course the daring structure of the Statue of Liberty. Built in 1881, it was designed in the style of a bridge pile to resist the wind.

© Sarah Brown

Eiffel took over Viollet-le-Duc’s project, but chose a hollow, lightweight structure to support the statue. He arranged four pylons in an “L” shape, each around 100-feet high. He also added a 65-foot pylon to support the arm, which was raised some 40 feet above the rest of the monument. In order to secure Liberty Enlightening the World to its base, he suggested using bolds 6 inches wide, driven 50 feet into the ground. This depth was needed to absorb the statue’s movements, as it could sway up to three inches back and forth in the wind! Some 300 beaten copper plates were assembled onto this framework, fixed in place with 300,000 rivets, making the ensemble light, flexible, and solid.

The statue’s supple structure and the folds of its robe protected it against expansions caused by temperature changes. However, as it was crafted in iron and copper, it could become an enormous electrical generator – a physical phenomenon created by the effects of salt water from the ocean on the metal. In an effort to side-step this danger, Eiffel inserted metal plates wrapped in rags coated with red lead between each copper-iron connection.

“A Metal Giant” in Paris

The to-scale statue was initially assembled in the Gaget et Gauthier workshops. An article published in Le Journal Illustré on May 13, 1883, described the astonishment of Parisians catching sight of the colossal figure rising out of the roof: “The head is complete, the right arm is finished; Liberty has emerged up to the waist […]. Gigantic fingers, including indexes measuring over nine feet long, are piled against the walls. Anyone would think they were in some magical land, at a factory where dwarves are manufacturing a metal giant.”

Paul-Joseph-Victor Dargaud, The Statue of Liberty in Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Studio, Paris, 1884.
Paul-Joseph-Victor Dargaud, Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty in the Workshop of the Founder Gaget, Rue de Chazelles, ca. 1884. © Musée Carnavalet, Paris

On the plot of land purchased for the occasion on Rue de Chazelles, workers assembled fragments of the statue in a seemingly random order. The head was in one place, with the arm holding the torch in another. A duplicate some 15 feet tall was installed under the Pont de Grenelle on the tip of the Ile aux Cygnes in Paris in 1889. Bartholdi’s model, one sixteenth of the size and crafted in plaster, is exhibited at the Musée des Arts et Métiers. (The replica sent to the United States is an exact copy cast in bronze, which stood in the museum courtyard from 2011.)

On the Fourth of July, 1884, the completed statue was officially handed over to the American ambassador in Paris, Levi Morton. All that was left to do was dismantle it and ship it to the United States! The different pieces were divided into 241 crates sent by train to Rouen, where they were loaded onto the Isère, which sailed into the port of New York in June 1885 – fourteen years after Bartholdi’s first trip – to the sounds of gun salutes and cheering crowds.

The statue was assembled in four months, but as the concrete and the Connecticut granite base was not ready, President Grover Cleveland finally inaugurated the monument on October 28, 1886 – which was declared a public holiday for the occasion. When his moment came, Bartholdi made his way up to the torch and lifted the immense French flag covering the statue’s face. “The majesty of the goddess was seen,” wrote the New York Times the next day. “Men cheered and women applauded […] till all men of the thousands gathered in her honor knew that Liberty has been given and received.”

=> Follow the replica of the Statue of Liberty as she crosses the Atlantic, from Le Havre to New York, aboard the freighter Tosca. Departure is set for June 19!

=> Listen to fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg, who is also the godmother of the Statue of Liberty, in the latest episode of the FrancoFiles podcast, produced by our friends and partners at the French Embassy in the United States.

=> Finally, on June 23, watch an online conference (in English) on “The Statue of Liberty: The Renewal of a Symbol.” Among the guests will be French Ambassador to the United States Philippe Etienne, American architecture critic Philip Kennicott, general administrator of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers Oliver Faron, and the historian Pap Ndiaye, who was recently appointed director of the Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration in Paris.