In October 1855, a promising young French sculptor named Auguste Bartholdi accompanied a group of orientalist painters, including Jean-Léon Gérôme and Léon-Adolphe-August Belly (See Aramco World, November-December 1984) on a four-month trip up the Nile.
Along the way, they visited the colossal statues at Abu Simbel and the massive temples at Thebes, about which Bartholdi wrote, "We are filled with profound emotion in the presence of these colossal centuries-old witnesses of a past... at whose feet so many generations, so many human glories, have rolled in the dust."
Bartholdi sketched much of what he saw and, in an unusual departure for an artist of that era, also took photographs. In the mid-1850's this was no mean feat; photography, with the cumbersome equipment of the day was difficult and, because of the highly explosive photochemicals then in use, was dangerous - especially under Egypt's blazing sun. But Bartholdi persevered and his carefully recorded visions of pharaonic Egypt's ancient monuments would later influence his future work.
Bartholdi recognized this when he wrote later, "I congratulate myself for having traveled many roads and [having] been to much of the Orient from my very youth. If I have had some success, it is to this that I owe it..."
Though his academic scruples prevented him from imitating Egyptian art directly, its grandiose success in the colossal mode haunted him, and the dream of equaling it became a mainspring of his life. To a large extent this ambition can be said to have been fulfilled, for by far his most successful works - and they did bring him great fame - were Liberty, and the Lion of Belfort, a patriotic memorial to the French town's heroic defenders of 1871, built into the cliffs below the fortress in the form of a 22 by 11 meter (72 by 36 foot) feline - a cross between the Sphinx at Giza and the Lion of Lucerne.
If the seeds of his later achievement in monumental sculpture were sown in Egypt, however, they did not immediately flourish. Returning to France after the summer of 1856, Bartholdi failed to find projects to which he could adapt the monumentality of Egyptian art and so, pragmatically, turned to more modest projects - many of which grace the parks and squares of his native Colmar today (See box).
His interest in the colossi, however, continued to surface, and in 1867, Bartholdi went to see the viceroy of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, who was visiting Paris during the Universal Exposition, and proposed a colossal statue be erected at the entrance of the Suez Canal, then nearing completion. In the form of an Egyptian female fellah (peasant) holding aloft a torch, the statue was to symbolize Ismail Pasha's efforts to modernize Egypt and would be called "Egypt (or Progress) Carrying the Light to Asia."
The statue was also to serve as a lighthouse - recalling the pharaonic Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and in appearance drew heavily on yet another ancient "wonder" - the Colossus of Rhodes, which in traditional reconstructions (See Aramco World, May-June 1980) appears in a vast maritime setting carrying a flame that was thought to serve as a beacon - and which later wasto be a crucial source for Liberty.
The viceroy, apparently, encouraged Bartholdi and, during the next two years, the sculptor submitted various designs for the project and, as a member of France's delegation at the opening of the Suez Canal, spent several months in Egypt, in 1869, seeking support for them.
In between visits to officials and others who might assist him, Bartholdi took time to revisit certain sites, including the Pyramids, where he found the spot where he had inscribed his name in 1856, and proceeded to add below it: 1869.
On a number of occasions, Bartholdi also saw Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal. De Lesseps, an expert on the viceroy's moods and abilities, gave Bartholdi polite encouragement, but also a warning: that Ismail Pasha, even while professing enthusiasm for Bartholdi's proposed statue, did not have the financial resources needed to carry it out.
As it turned out, de Lesseps was correct: the viceroy could not afford a new Colossus and so, his Egyptian hopes dashed, Bartholdi returned to France. Later, Bartholdi was to insist that his Suez project ended there and then - and its manifest similarity to the Statue of Liberty was a mere coincidence. But this clearly was not the case.
Earlier, Bartholdi had participated in' discussions with Édouard René Lefebvre de Laboulaye, a leading figure in an influential circle of French liberals, during which the idea of commemorating the100th anniversary of the American Republic - and thereby making a cautious but unmistakable statement against the autocratic Second Empire of Napoleon III - took hold. Now, in 1871, Bartholdi put forward a bold proposal: presentation of a great statue to the United States, a statue that would symbolize freedom and liberty.
The weakness of Bartholdi's attempt to play down his involvement with Egypt and to detach it from the Liberty project emerges when we discover what happened after Suez. According to Bartholdi's own published account, written in 1885, the seeds for Liberty were, in fact, sown by Laboulaye as early as 1865. But the first hints of the project in Bartholdi's private papers appear, only in December 1869, followed by his trip to America in 1871. It would therefore appear that upon returning from Egypt in the fall of 1869, Bartholdi sought to convert failure into success by re-directing his Egyptian project toward the old "American " idea of Laboulaye.
The convergence of Suez Progress and the New York Liberty can be seen in what appears to be the earliest model for Liberty, dated 1870. Its torch-lifting pose closely resembles the Egyptian project, but it is identifiable as Liberty by its classic costume and by the broken fetters at its feet. In a larger and more finished version of this 1870 model, now in the Museum of the City of New York, the radiant crown is already adumbrated, though Bartholdi appears to have been still uncertain about what to put in Liberty's left hand; he substituted a broken chain for the vase of the earlier model. The tablet was to appear only in the final version. Formally, too, this larger model falls between the strong twisting movement of the Egyptian project and the extreme rigidity of the later, more mature model.
When Bartholdi was picked to do the statue - formally called "Liberty Enlightening the World" - he clearly dusted off his abortive Egyptian project, as a comparison of clay models of the Suez lighthouse and the early renderings of Liberty shows.
Further evidence of the Egyptian influence on his thinking is Bartholdi's original idea for Liberty's pedestal - he envisioned his monument set atop a massive pyramidal base. Curiously, in view of his own recognition of the importance of his exposure to Egypt, Bartholdi was at pains to distance Liberty from his Egyptian proposals.
He claimed in a newspaper interview that, "At that time my Statue of Liberty did not exist, even in my imagination, and the only resemblance between the drawing that I submitted to the Khedive and the statue now in New York's beautiful harbor is that both held a light aloft. Now... how is a sculptor to make a statue which is to serve the purpose of a lighthouse without making it hold the light in the air?"
Bartholdi conveniently ignored the fact that in the case of both the Suez Progress and the original idea for the New York Liberty the lighthouse beacon was not planned for the torch, but was to radiate from the forehead of the figure; the torch was to be purely symbolic. He also evaded the glaring similarity of the two programs; colossal, robed, torch-bearing females as lighthouses, sited at key points astride major waterways of the world, symbolizing twin deities in the 19th century pantheon - Liberty and Progress - in both cases actively passing their message from one continent to another.
Bartholdi even claims at one point to have "never executed anything for the Khedive, except the features of a female fellah..." and in another statement insists that he did only "a little sketch which has remained in his palace..." failing to recall the series of models done over a two-year period; his trip to Egypt primarily to obtain the commission; and his stubborn insistence on pushing the project.
All this might suggest that Bartholdi merely exploited the opportunity offered him by Liberty's patrons to satisfy his obsession with the colossal. His words and deeds demonstrate, however, that he too was a genuine partisan of liberty. Bartholdi's choice of the ardent republican Ary Scheffer as a master perhaps revealed and surely reinforced his political leanings. He was patriotically involved in the Franco-Prussian war - serving as chief of staff of the Paris National Guard and coordinating the unsuccessful defense of Colmar. He served as aide-de-camp to Garibaldi, and then joined the army of the Vosges, which, under the command of the famous Italian Condottiere, attempted a last ditch stand at Côte d'Or.
The French defeat and the annexation of Bartholdi's native Alsace by Germany upset the sculptor deeply. His sentiments found direct expression not only in the Lion of Belfort but also in other commemorative works, particularly the 'unknown soldier's' tomb at Colmar from which a hand reaches out to a sword beside it.
For Bartholdi, liberty signified a cause as well as an opportunity, and there can be little doubt that it was political idealism - as well as artistic or professional ambition - that impelled him to devote himself for more than a decade to what often seemed an all-but-hopeless project, which, although it finally brought him fame, was to prove financially profitless.