Far from the excitement and spectacle that will celebrate the Statue of Liberty's 100th birthday in New York Harbor in early July, the tiny town of Colmar, France, stakes a quiet claim for attention. It's the birthplace of the statue's sculptor, Fr'ed'eric Auguste Bartholdi, and the location of a museum that gives fascinating insight into the creation of this cherished monument. Bartholdi devoted nearly 20 years to this enormous project. He wanted it to be the generous gift from the French people to the American people. But in 1871, France was at one of her darkest hours. The siege of Paris had just ended with the capitulation of the French after the Prussian invasion of Bartholdi's beloved Alsace and Lorraine.
Initially there was little enthusiasm for Bartholdi's idea. In Paris, however, where he had moved his workshop from his native Colmar, the sculptor met a brilliant lawyer, Edouard de Laboulaye, a longtime admirer of American ideals. With a few other liberal friends, the two men planned to build a monument to the glory of liberty, a testimony of their friendship with the American republic and for the centennial celebration of American independence. Bartholdi, officially commissioned to design the proposed monument, declared, ``I will leave for America to glorify the republic over there, until I can do so one day in my own native country!''
Bartholdi, then 37 years old, was a recognized artist, whose creations gave proof of his strong feelings of patriotism, liberty, and the struggle against invaders. His two-week crossing on the ocean voyage from Le Havre to New York culminated with the view of the imposing bay at the mouth of the Hudson River. ``This is the very place where my statue will stand!'' he is said to have shouted. Taking out a sketchbook, he quickly drew what travelers arriving in New York Harbor many years later would see: the famous statue on Bedloe's Island.
Bartholdi's project hit many snags. The President of the United States informed the sculptor that the government couldn't support the project. Bartholdi also learned that Bedloe's Island (now named Liberty Island), a narrow strip of land used as a military base, might not be approved by the government as the site for a monument.
Many influential Americans, however, responded favorably to Bartholdi's dream. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow promised to help. Joseph Pulitzer, editor of the New York World, began a campaign fund, and the Alsatian community in New York rallied behind the project.
The question arose as to who would be the model for the stately woman, Lady Liberty, and who would typify the beauty, strength, and character of Bartholdi's statue.
The developments recounted here are given a romantic recital in the booklet ``Bartholdi and the Statue of Liberty,'' by biographer Laurent Causel, published in France.
According to Mr. Causel, Bartholdi attended a wedding shortly after his return from America. He suddenly saw at the top of a staircase a striking young woman with a milliner's hat box in her hand. Embarrassed at the sight of the elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen in the ballroom, the milliner's assistant rushed out of the room into an enclosed winter garden. Bartholdi, struck by Jeanne Emilie Baheux's beauty, followed her to the garden to introduce himself. As he later exclaimed to a friend, ``I have finally met my Lady Liberty!''
At his apartment/studio in the rue Vavin, Bartholdi introduced Jeanne Emilie to his workshop staff as the model for his monument. The two fell in love and lived together from then on.
The romance met interference, however, from both the sculptor's mother, Madame Charlotte Bartholdi, back in Colmar, and the statue's overwhelming importance in the Bartholdis' lives.
In his studio in Paris, Bartholdi created many models for the proposed monument, some of which were enlarged. Soon the copper head patterned after that of Jeanne Emilie (or, as some said, Charlotte Bartholdi) peered over the rooftops of Paris. It was set on an iron frame, the work of engineer Alexandre Eiffel. The frame would become the body of the statue fashioned after Jeanne Emilie's figure. This noble goddess overlooking Paris was meant to embody the love for freedom and independence of the French people, who had just freed themselves from the Prussian occupation.
The completed statue would stand 160 feet high from the foot to the tip of the torch light, the head measuring 28 feet, the hand 16 feet, and the index finger 8 feet. The total weight was 200 tons.
To raise funds to complete the project, banquets were held inside the statue. The first affair had 25 places set at tables within the kneecap; the second one was held in the thigh section; the third one inside the stomach; and the last banquet for 50 people was held in the head.
On July 4, 1884, nearly 20 years after Bartholdi conceived the idea and a decade after the construction of the first model (four feet high), a delegation of French and American officials witnessed the official presentation of the colossal statue to the US at a ceremony in Paris.
Visitors crowded the Chazelles Street courtyard where the statue stood, and Bartholdi was praised in press accounts for his ``eloquent and noble talent'' and for creating ``the most beautiful heroic form of living expression.'' Among the visitors was author Victor Hugo, said to have been awed by the gigantic work.
After being dismantled, the statue began its trip to the US. It was slowly reassembled on a huge base on Bedloe's Island in time for the unveiling on Oct. 28, 1886. That day the sky was bleak and dreary, but flags were raised for the public holiday declared in honor of the event, and fanfares burst forth on street corners in New York. Amid the sounds of marching bands and against the backdrop of ships cruising the harbor, President Grover Cleveland arrived at Bedloe's Island. While Americans and Frenchmen cheered wildly, Bartholdi pulled the rope, and an immense French flag slid aside to reveal, first, the giant head of ``Liberty Enlightening the World.''
When Bartholdi died in 1904, Jeanne Emilie funded charitable institutions in his memory and established a home for impoverished artists. She also made arrangements for the Bartholdi house here in Colmar to be preserved as a museum. It took many years to collect the sculptures, architectual drawings, and paintings that now serve to profile the artist's life. The models of the Statue of Liberty on display reflect his love of freedom and the ties between his homeland and the country he came to love and admire.