Bartholdi and his Statue of Liberty

The dictionary sums up what most of us know about Bartholdi and his Statue of Liberty. This brief description of a statue by a man we’ve never heard of conveys nothing of the quest and the ideas that produced this phenomenal work of art.

Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty in New York (Click for larger version of all photos) User:Mcj1800 / CC BY-SA

The Statue of Liberty:

a statue at the entrance to New York Harbor, a symbol of welcome to immigrants, representing a draped female figure carrying a book of laws in her left hand and holding aloft a torch in her right. Dedicated in 1886, it was designed by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi and was the gift of the French, commemorating the alliance of France and the US during the American Revolution.

The Statue of Liberty was not a gift from the French government. It was not intended to be a monument welcoming immigrants to the United States. The statue was built in Paris, disassembled, and shipped to the US using contributions of many small donors in France. It was reassembled in the US on a pedestal built by Americans and funded by American small donors. The island on which it was erected, formerly the site of the Army’s Fort Wood, was ceded for that purpose by the US government.

It was a messy process, as many never-before-tried things are.

At the time of its construction, it was by far the tallest statue in the world, taller than any building in Paris or New York. It was primarily the idea and design of one man, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who spent much of his career in a quest to build the world’s largest statue. His quest was far more important to building the Statue of Liberty than any national spirit of friendship and camaraderie between France and the United States.

Bartholdi’s Early Life

Bartholdi's General Rapp
Bartholdi’s General Rapp Statue, now in Colmar, France Poudou99 / aka Kootshisme / CC BY-SA

Bartholdi was from Colmar, France, part of today’s region known as Alsace. His father died when he was young, leaving his mother Charlotte to raise him and his older brother Charles. In 1843 she moved the family to Paris to properly educate her boys. August wasn’t a very good student, but outside of school he studied art with Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who would later lead the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris.

Bartholdi decided to become a maker of statues, rather than a sculptor. At age 19 he won a third place award for his statue of Napoléon’s General Rapp at the 1855 Paris Universal Exposition. His statue at the entrance to the Palais des Beaux-Arts was too large to fit inside.

The Egyptian Lighthouse

In 1855 Bartholdi traveled to Egypt to collect photographic evidence of historical monuments. Egypt’s art and its people had a deep impact on him. Thus Egypt became his first idea for a monumental work of art.

At the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition, Bartholdi offered the khedive (leader of Egypt), Ismail Pasha, his idea for a monumental Egyptian statue at the port for the Suez Canal, which was then under construction, led by French engineers. His lighthouse statue, portraying a fellah, an indigenous North African slave woman, would have been the tallest statue in the world. Bartholdi’s proposal was never accepted.

Bartholdi’s Decides to go to the United States

After Egypt, Bartholdi needed to find a new theme and a new location for his colossal work of art.

First he was called home to Colmar to fight in the militia in the Franco Prussian War of 1870-71, which France lost. Part of the treaty ending the war called for Alsace to become part of Prussia, so Bartholdi had to decide whether to stay or leave. He ruled out staying in Colmar.

Following the war, there was a civil uprising in Paris by a group called the Paris Commune. Thousands were killed or put in jail to restore order. The government of France owed Prussia billions of francs in war reparations. Bartholdi saw little opportunity so he ruled out going back to Paris.

Thus he decided to go to the United States, and he had a French friend who could help him. In 1865 he created a bust of Edouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, a French jurist and writer. Laboulaye adored America and its ideals, laws, and history, and all the more so after slavery had been abolished. So in 1871 Bartholdi visited Laboulaye again and revealed his hope to build a great work in America. Laboulaye gave him the names of some contacts and suggested that he propose a joint venture between France and the United States. He no doubt also influenced the title and purpose of the work as being “Liberty Enlightening the World”.

Laboulaye would organize the Franco-American Union in 1872, a committee to raise funds for the statue in France. In their first dinner at the Louvre, they raised about 10% of the estimated 400,000 francs needed to build the statue.

Bartholdi’s First Visit to America

When he arrived in New York, Bartholdi wasn’t optimistic about his chance of success. He wrote his mother that he didn’t think the American character was open to things of the imagination. 

His sales pitch to those he visited in New York was that in exchange for the Americans providing land and hopefully the base for a statue, he would provide a monument for the 100th anniversary of the American Revolution, 1876. This offer underplayed the American responsibility and oversold France’s knowledge of the project. He also visited Washington, DC and Boston, afterwards taking a tour of American west.

Along his way, Bartholdi met Americans Richard Butler, John LaFarge, and lawyer William M Evarts, who would form a committee to raise funds. He also met the President, Ulysses S Grant, who indicated that a suitable site could be arranged by the government. Bartholdi liked the site at Bedloe’s Island in New York harbor since it stood apart from the tall buildings. He wanted his statue to be in such a prominent location and of such size that it could not be ignored by the public and would become an icon for the city. He thought Americans were too concerned with money, but he liked that they dreamed big.

Design and Construction of the Statue

Wood slatted forms used to shape copper for the statue.
Wood slatted forms used to shape copper for the statue.

Bartholdi turned to Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who had completed the Notre Dame restoration, for help in construction of La Liberté. They chose the forge of Emile Gaget and JB Gautier in Paris for their iron works. Viollet-le-Duc proposed copper for the statue, with iron bracings for the interior. They began work with a team of about 50 men.

Bartholdi worked on a simple design for the statue, a woman in a stola, the traditional garment for Roman women. For her crown he settled on a rayed diadem. Because the centenary of the Declaration of Independence was only five years away, he put a tablet in one of her hands with July 4, 1776 inscribed on it.

Diorama created by Bartoldi to show measuring and shaping of the plaster forms
Diorama created by Bartoldi to show measuring and shaping of the plaster forms scaling the smaller head from the 37ft model

The arduous, never-before-tried process of creating the statue started with creating a maquette – a small display version. Bartholdi then created a plaster statue about 7 feet tall. Using careful measurements from this plaster statue, he created a plaster model of 37.75 feet. Workers marked this model with dots to divide it into pieces, then measured carefully, scaling up from the 37 foot model using some 90,000 measurements to create wooden slatted frame slices four times as large. They covered each wood frame with smooth plaster on which they could hammer into shape each piece of the copper skin for the full-sized statue.

Fundraising in France

Hand and torch in Philadelphia
Hand and torch in Philadelphia New York Public Library / Public domain

In the centennial year of 1876, Bartholdi first arranged a giant banner with the image of his statue in New York’s Madison Square during their 4th of July Parade. The French team shipped the completed Hand of Liberty with Torch from France for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition at the end of September. Bartholdi raised funds by selling souvenirs and tickets that allowed people to climb up the hand to view out. He realized that people would make donations for the chance to interact with the project.

Bartholdi met with Butler and Evarts to form of a group of businessmen to raise funds in the US for the pedestal. The committee grew to become 400 prominent men, eventually including Teddy Roosevelt. Their hope was that the pedestal would be funded by many small donors.

Army General William Tecumseh Sherman made the decision on behalf of Congress that the statue would be erected on Bedloe’s Island.

Back in Paris in 1877, Bartholdi arranged for Louis Daguerre, inventor of the daguerreotype, and Jean Baptiste Lavastre, decorator of the Paris Opera, to create a scene in the Palais de l’Industrie where viewers could climb a balustrade and gaze at a panorama of New York harbor. Over top of the harbor rose a gigantic Statue of Liberty with her beacon. Thousands came to pay to see this view. After its run at the Palais, they moved it to the Tuileries, where it would play for two more years.

Head of the Statue of Liberty
Head of the Statue of Liberty 1878 Paris Exposition Albert Fernique / Public domain

At the 1878 Paris exposition on the Champ de Mars, Bartholdi revealed the head of the Statue of Liberty. He raised money by charging for photos of New York harbor to those who wanted to climb up inside the head.

Fundraising in France slowed down after that, and finally the Franco-American Union convinced the government to allow a national lottery to raise funds, providing another boost in funding.

Gustav Eiffel Joins the Project

At this critical point, Viollet-le-Duc died unexpectedly. Bartholdi realized that he still had no plan to get Liberty to her feet. He needed an engineering genius to save him and his 151 foot sculpture, so he went to the world’s foremost maker of bridges, Gustav Eiffel.

Eiffel was taciturn about his commitment to the project, but he was intrigued by the technical difficulties. The huge surface area would be buffeted by high winds that could topple the statue into the sea. It had to withstand the extreme temperature changes, so there must be a way for parts to slide to adapt. Lastly, the copper skin would react with sea spray and the iron interior to cause galvanic corrosion. He agreed to complete the construction of the statue, but not the installation on the pedestal.

The Statue is done but the Americans Need Funds

The Americans were making almost no progress in fundraising for the base of the statue. Finally in November, 1881, the American Committee agreed to a campaign soliciting funds from all of the states and setting up a fundraising network in all the major cities.

Meanwhile in France, Bartholdi opened his Paris workshop for visitors. He turned curiosity seekers into subscribers by selling tickets to view the progress of the construction of the statue.

Eiffel's iron skeleton
Eiffel’s iron skeleton and the statue towering over the neighborhood

Eiffel conceived of an assembly plan. The rivets would be slightly loose to accommodate the wide temperature variations. Bolts would be hidden on the inside, so they would not show. In the workshop courtyard, workers erected a giant iron skeleton to be inside of the statue. This skeleton would bear all the of weight and provide all of the strength. Eiffel devised an intricate anti-corrosion scheme. Workers wrapped copper pieces in cloth between each pair of joints and rivets.

By January of 1883, the Americans had raised only $70,000 of the estimated $250,000 needed for the base. That summer, Bartholdi wrote the American Committee, informing them that he would temporarily transfer all royalties from his copyright, so that they might raise funds by selling reproductions of his statue. The American committee, which had begun as 400 men, was now whittled down to just three.

In Paris near Parc Monceau one could hear the hammering from blocks away and see a giant statue towering above the 6 story buildings in the neighborhood. You could buy a ticket to visit the statue, entering through the back foot and climbing a staircase up to see the view from the head, or for the daring, continue the climb up the arm to see out of the torch, from where there was a spectacular view of all of Paris. People came in droves. It was enough to finance the statue’s completion.

Liberty was now ready for her passage to America.

America’s Struggle to Complete the Pedestal

General Sherman appointed Charles P Stone to oversee the effort of getting the statue safely in place on Bedloe’s Island. He began his work as Engineer in Chief on April 3, 1883. Stone’s own calculations were that he would have to pour the largest block of cement ever fashioned in order to secure the statue. With 100 workmen, they started in on the task, which required extensive excavation.

Joseph Pulitzer was a newspaperman from St Louis who wanted to move into the New York market. He negotiated to purchase the seedy New York World from Jay Gould, one of the richest men in America. Pulitzer was an advocate for the underdog. He had visited the Paris exposition in 1878 and seen Liberty’s head, met Bartholdi, and found a perfect story to criticize the American rich, since the base was in desperate need of funding and no millionaire was stepping forward. Pulitzer put the statue on the masthead of his newspaper.

President Grant solicited John D Rockefeller to fund the work, but to no avail. By early 1884 the funding situation of the base had become critical.

Richard Morris Hunt, who created the first New York apartment building, became the architect for the pedestal. By November 1883, he had designed a model.

The Link to Immigration

The American Committee organized an art exhibition fundraiser for December 3, 1883. Constance Cary Harrison, a New York socialite, solicited contributions of poems and prose for auction during the exhibition. She asked Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Bret Harte. She also asked her friend Emma Lazarus, a Jewish aristocrat and activist who had previously taken to the plight of the Russian Jewish refugees on Ward’s Island. After first brushing aside the request, Lazarus addressed it, sending her sonnet , The New Colossus, which includes these lines known to many Americans:

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!

This poem would be one of several factors that turned the meaning of the statue from “liberty enlightening the world” into a symbol of freedom and opportunity for immigrants.

Sealed bids for the pedestal construction came out uniformly astronomical in cost. Materials alone would cost nearly the previously estimated amount for the entire project, $250,000, of which the Americans had raised only $140,000. The New York legislature authorized funds, but Governor Grover Cleveland vetoed them.

On July 4, 1884, the process for handing over the statue started. Laboulaye unfortunately had passed away the year before. Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, had taken over as chairman of the Franco-American Union.

Pulitzer’s Fundraising Campaign

This lack of American civic pride enraged Joseph Pulitzer, who after some consideration penned an article stating the World would raise funds for the completion of the statue. He offered to print the name of every donor in his paper. It was a savvy plan. There were businesses that would donate every day just to keep their name in the paper for the almost free advertising. After 2 months, the fund for the base still needed $70,000.

The statue arrived in New York on July 17 housed in 220 crates for the passage to America. The captain of the French cargo ship transferred ownership of the statue to General Stone, who still lacked funds to finish the pedestal. As the ship headed towards the Battery at the tip of Manhattan, thousands lined the Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn, as well as the docks in Manhattan, to celebrate the arrival.

At this point, Pulitzer created the first professional fundraising corps in the United States. He discovered that the immigrants were far more appreciative in their donations than the native born. Each day his team of fundraisers would fan out in New York, soliciting funds. Each man was allowed to keep 20% of what he raised. On August 11, 1885, Pulitzer announced that he had raised the required $100,000 to complete the pedestal. There were 120,000 contributors. The target for completion of the statue was July 4, 1886.

Finishing the Pedestal

More funds were needed. Construction estimates were off. By mid-August an informant had accused Stone of incompetence and overspending. Others chimed in to confirm the accusations. On October 20, the American Committee informed Stone that they no longer needed his services after January 1. A French engineer would direct installation of the statue. Despite the loss of his position, Stone stayed on as a volunteer to coordinate non-construction activities of the project.

In November 1885, the work on the pedestal was still not finished. At this point Bartholdi realized that he would need to delay the unveiling until September, to coincide with the anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles (which was the treaty that formally ended the Revolutionary War).

Though the Americans were still short of funds, on April 22, 1886, workers finally put the last stone of the pedestal in place. After much political infighting, the US House of Representatives voted down a bill to complete funding of the statue. There were accusations of scandal and lies. In the end, the Senate slipped in $56,500 in funding, and the President signed the bill. There would be an unveiling after all.

Unveiling the Statue of Liberty

The statue was complete, but almost every preparation for the unveiling was behind schedule. On October 28, it poured rain. Stone stood in uniform, ready to lead a parade of 30,000 in Manhattan. At 10 am President Cleveland and Secretary of State Thomas Bayard arrived to join the festivities, and the group started down 5th Avenue, passing buildings draped in flags and decorations with stars and stripes. There were soldiers, firefighters, flower girls, students, and bricklayers. Pulitzer stood outside his office with a masthead decoration that included the statue in the center. French dignitaries arrived as well. On Wall Street they threw ticker tape out the windows, the first-ever ticker tape parade.

After the parade the visitors headed to boats to go to the unveiling. Two hundred steamers cruised near the island after delivering 2500 guests ashore. When the President arrived, the ceremony began. Ship’s whistles and crowd noise drowned out the prayer. Then de Lesseps spoke and everything quieted down, as if by magic. He said that France and America had only a rivalry of progress. Bartholdi made no remarks. Evarts commenced his speech leading to unveiling the monument while Bartholdi climbed to the statue’s highest point.

Thinking he heard Evart’s signal, Bartholdi released the veil prematurely. Evarts was still in the middle of his speech, pausing as the crowd started cheering. Then the ships offshore rendered the 500 gun salute. Next the crowd sang the national anthems of France and the United States. People wondered what was happening when Evarts continued his speech and addressed the President, finally turning over the statue to the United States. The President accepted the statue, and then Chauncey Depew, a railroad magnate, concluded the ceremony with a speech about Lafayette. All goes well that ends well.


During the project and for some time after, people knew it as Bartholdi’s statue, but over time they would forget the sculptor’s name. People judged Charles P Stone a success because he organized the best parade New York had ever seen. Three years after Liberty’s unveiling, Gustav Eiffel would build his tower in Paris and lay claim to the tallest structure in the world. He would not build anything after that. Both Eiffel and de Lesseps were convicted of crimes (later overturned) in the scandal following the French failure to build the Panama Canal.

Ultimately the Statue of Liberty has become iconic. It represents us, Americans, rather than our bond with France, though we should be mindful from whence it came. Bartholdi acted very much like an American in his quest. He dared, he innovated, he solved many problems, and with the help of other similarly-minded French and Americans, he succeeded. It’s not your typical European story, but it’s very American.

Several copies of the Statue of Liberty, each with a pedigree from the original statue, are on display in Paris. See this slide show for photos and more information, as well as other Bartholdi related statues.

Much of the material for this article comes from this book: Mitchell, Elizabeth. Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, 2015.


Add Yours
  1. JonLee (Ms.) Joseph

    Thank you Hugh! Love a good story, and this certainly is one, complete with photos. Cheers, JonLee

    • Hugh Nelson

      Merci Jonlee! It was a saga – kind of long for most people so thanks for persevering. The lockdown allowed me to focus my efforts and weed out a lot of other interesting material about Bartholdi and the statue. Hope you are doing well and staying healthy. Brenda is headed home to see her mother soon.


    Bullshit!, there is no mention of the Chains and shackles on the Statues Feet, It was a dedication to Black people, not this false drivel this fake author is putting forth. White people again Whitewashing the Dirty abomination of 250 years of Slavery of Human beings

    • Hugh Nelson

      Édouard Laboulaye was the French legal scholar and politician who encouraged Bartholdi to propose a jointly constructed memorial to the common friendship between France and the United States. Though he greatly admired the United States, at the start of the Civil War he had grave reservations about the American form of democracy, since it still permitted slavery. Slavery had been abolished in France with the Revolution in 1793. It was re-instituted by Napoléon in 1802, and then again abolished in 1848. Laboulaye was looking at these events, not too distant in time, as we might think of World War II and the Viet Nam War today.

      Democracy, so hard won by the French and American revolutions, had again disappeared in France between 1850 and 1871 during the dictatorship of Emperor Napoléon III. It did not quickly recover after his downfall. In 1871 in Paris, where people were starving from the siege of the Prussians at the end of the Franco Prussian War, a group called the Paris Commune and members of the national guard had taken control of the city with armed force and advocated rebellion in France and establishment of a radical socialist government. French government troops killed 10,000 and arrested another 40,000 to reclaim control of the city. Things were not going well at home.

      The triumph of the North over the South in the American Civil War, America’s bloodiest war ever, and the emancipation of the slaves thus encouraged Laboulaye to suggest to Bartholdi that he go to the US and propose this joint project. In Bartholdi’s mind, this was a statue about democracy, the idea of “Liberty Enlightening the World”.

      He considered having the statue hold a broken chain, symbolizing freedom, and commemorating the end of the Civil War, but he now saw the statue as a “commemoration of the two nation’s common quest for democracy.” With the centenary of the Declaration of Independence only 5 years away, he put a tablet with 1776 in her hand and liberty’s torch in the other. The broken chains were tucked below the statue as she takes a step forward to symbolize “breaking the bonds of tyranny”, of which the Emancipation Proclamation was an important part.

      The issues of slavery and oppression are older than history itself. The Egyptian pyramids were build by slaves, the servants of Abraham were slaves, the prophet Amos inveighs against the practice of indentured servitude and its outsized effects on the poor, 8% of the English population were slaves in 1086, forced labor to build and maintain roads was a major public grievance in the French Revolution, and as you well know, the Emancipation Proclamation did not solve all the problems with oppression in the US. It remains to be seen whether the current boisterous atmosphere of protest and demonstration in our country will allow Liberty to take another step forward or not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.