- Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty by Yasmin Sabina Khan
If asked about the origins of the Statue of Liberty, most Americans would repeat a story learned in grade school, that it was a gift from France to the United States. As with most iconic artifacts, whether historical narrative or monument, such simplistic explanations usually suffice, so rarely is more education sought upon reaching adulthood. Of course, it is often these same artifacts whose history is understood the least, for layers of myth and legend built up over time replace earlier historical narratives. Such is certainly the case with the Statue of Liberty, or as Yasmin Khan reminds us, Liberty Enlightening the World, the rarely invoked original title, one that points towards the much more complex circumstances that framed the statue’s creation.
In this highly detailed and carefully researched study, Khan takes readers back to the context of the statue’s conception, French interest in the American “experiment” as proof that a government based on Enlightenment notions of liberty, equality and fraternity could prevail. For many liberals in France, weary but still hopeful that a representative government would eventually triumph in their own country, the United States provided an exemplary model, especially after slavery was abolished and the Constitution survived the Civil War intact. Among the most ardent admirers was legal scholar Édouard-René Lefebvre de Laboulaye, who emerges as the primary hero in Khan’s story. Mindful of the role that France had played in the American Revolution and the close alliance established through the efforts of the Marquis de Lafayette, Laboulaye hoped to rekindle the bonds of friendship between the two nations in the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination. What he proposed was a commemorative monument dedicated to the ideal of liberty that would be constructed in a spirit of friendship and collaboration, a project that would take twenty years to complete and enlist the participation of thousands of people on both sides of the Atlantic, from American schoolchildren donating their pennies to the project’s three major designers: French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, French engineer Gustave Eiffel, and American architect Richard Morris Hunt.
Although structured primarily through a focus on the aforementioned individuals, Khan’s narrative also highlights the tremendous amount of labor and ingenuity [End Page 227] required to construct a 151-foot high sculpture in copper based on Bartholdi’s less than four-foot high terra cotta model. In this regard, the accompanying photographs are invaluable, especially for conveying the elaborate scale of the statue, as well as revealing the complex engineering and construction techniques involved. Also of interest are Khan’s arguments concerning possible sources for the design, from ancient models like the Colossus of Rhodes and the Greco-Roman tradition of allegorical female figures to uniquely American ones, such as the seven-rayed sun on the Carpenters’ Company coat of arms, in whose hall the First Continental Congress met, and the trampled chain in John Sartrain’s engraving of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.
Easily accessible, Enlightening the World will be of interest to both general readers and scholars, although the latter should not expect extensive critical analysis on such issues as the role and meaning of public sculpture, collective memory and identity, or the ideological connotations of the Neoclassical tradition, especially in terms of race, gender and class. The focus here is narrow, yet not without import, even timeliness, for in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York City, within viewing distance of the iconic statue itself, Americans were once again forced to reexamine their commitment to the ideal of liberty and their role as a beacon of hope for others.