History: Also known as Liberty Enlightening the World; French: La Liberté éclairant le monde. Its designer was Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, its builder was Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. Its intended purpose was to be a gift from France to the United States as a symbol of Franco-American friendship and cooperation. Over time, however, it has come to represent a great many different things since its assembly upon our shores. For many immigrants coming in by boat to New York, the statue represented safety and opportunity in a new life in America, the New World.
On the island on which the Statue of Liberty stands are five smaller bronze statues. Five key figures involved in the statue’s history; Edouard René de Laboulaye, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, Gustave Eiffel, Joseph Pulitzer, and Emma Lazarus.
The conception of Lady Liberty came during a French dinner party, summer 1865. Edouard René de Laboulaye, a legal scholar and liberal, he was France’s leading expert on the United States and very much preferred the American style of politics and government to that of his home empire, currently under the rule of Napoleon III. The reason for the dinner party was a celebration of the Union’s victory over the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Laboulaye and his guests wanted a way to show support to the Union and make a “gesture designed to highlight the superiority of the American political system over France’s authoritarian one.”
The guests in attendance included Oscar de Lafayette, Count Charles de Remsat, Hippolyte de Tocqueville, and Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. It is at this dinner party that Bartholdi had the idea to build a giant statue. A statue of what, Bartholdi certainly had a lot of iconography to draw inspiration from. One immediate statuary to compare Lady Liberty to is the Colossus of Rhodes. A legendary sculpture from Before the Common Era, it stood at the entrance to the harbor of Rhodes welcoming ships with a flaming torch and a crown of spokes, Bartholdi called it “the most celebrated colossal statue of antiquity.”1
In 1875, Bartholdi felt the time was right to go forward and ask for public support toward the building of the statue. The French would pay for the copper statue, the Americans would pay for the base upon which it would stand on. His final design, Bartholdi admitted, “wasn’t a great work of art.” Artistic originality was beyond the point. What it was, was an engineering marvel. The statue is not a solid whole. It is composed of sections of copper skin held together by an iron skeleton. Imagine, if you will, the Eiffel Tower inside of the Statue of Liberty.
Construction of the Statue was piecemeal, by 1876 the statue’s torch-hand was constructed well enough for transport. It went on display during Philadelphia’s centennial celebration. It was a popular exhibit and the souvenir stand was rather profitable.
As the years passed, eventually the statue once as shiny as a new penny began to take on a certain greenish hue. By 1906 this patina had covered the statue entirely.
By the 1980s Lady Liberty was in need of a makeover.
From July 4-6, 1986, over 6 million people came to New York to attend the Statue of Liberty’s centennial celebration, a whole weekend, it was also known as Liberty Weekend. ABC had exclusive broadcasting rights, $10 million spent for the privilege.2
Significance: The Statue of Liberty is now a major tourist attraction bringing in countless thousands from across the globe to see the big green lady for themselves. For so long it has stood that is iconographical to the geography of New York, nay, the entire United States. It is unthinkable to speak of the Big Apple and not conjure to mind the emerald colossus that bears her torch for all the poor and wretched of the world.
“According to the art historian Albert Boime, or extremely fluid understanding of what the statue says come from three of its essential qualities: abstractness, artistic banality, and colossal size.”3 Bartholdi intended the statue to last many decades, express a general universal theme, he gave it a classical form and kept it abstract and metaphorical.
The theme of the Statue as a beacon for the poor and downtrodden immigrant is best encapsulated in the poem A New Colossus by Emma Lazarus. It reads:
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!”4
This poem was written by The Jewish-American poetess as part of the fund-raising campaign to build the statue’s base. There is strong mother imagery within the poem, a “mighty woman” and mother of exiles” particularly.
Berenson, Edward. 2012. The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 20, 2016).
Blanchet, Christian, and Bertrand Dard. 1985. Statue of Liberty: the first hundred years. n.p.: New York: American Heritage; Boston: Distributed by Houghton Mifflin Co., ©1985., 1985. Seton Hall University, EBSCOhost (accessed October 20, 2016).
FRAZIER, IAN. 2016. “PATINA.” New Yorker 92, no. 29: 46-49. Literary Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed October 20, 2016).
Handlin, Oscar. 1971. Statue of Liberty. n.p.: New York, Newsweek , 1971. Seton Hall University, EBSCOhost (accessed October 20, 2016).
Sacks, Terence J. 2016. “Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Historic Sites.” Salem Press EncyclopediaResearch Starters, EBSCOhost (accessed October 20, 2016).
- Edward Berenson, The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012), 17
- Berenson, The Statue of Liberty, 182
- Edward Berenson, The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012), 3
- Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” in The Poems of Emma Lazarus (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin And Company, 1888), 202