Bartholdi was born in Colmar, in the Alsace region of France, to a family of German Protestant origin (the name was latinized from Barthold, probably in the late seventeenth century). His father, Jean-Charles, a counselor to the prefecture and well-to-do property owner, died when Auguste was two years old. His mother, Augusta Charlotte, moved with Auguste and his older brother Jean-Charles to Paris, where another prosperous and influential branch of the family lived. Throughout Bartholdi's childhood, however, the family spent long periods in Colmar, and a passionate devotion to his native region colored the artist's life.
Auguste took drawing lessons with Martin Rossbach (1787-1870) in Colmar, and in Paris he went on to study sculpture with Antoine Etex (1808-1888), architecture with Henri Labrouste (1801-1875) and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879), and painting with Ary Scheffer (1795-1858). Scheffer encouraged his interest in sculpture, which he pursued further in the studio of Jean-François Soitoux (1816-1891). He submitted a Good Samaritan sculptural group (later edited in bronze) to the Salon of 1853, and within two years had wrested the commission by his native city for a bronze commemorative statue of the Napoleonic General Jean Rapp from the older Alsatian sculptor Lavalette (1855-1856). Thus began Bartholdi's career as a prolific creator of patriotic monuments, primarily in Alsace, and as a proficient lobbyist for his own artistic ambitions.
A journey to Egypt and Yemen in 1855 and 1886, in the company of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) and other orientalist painters, fueled Bartholdi's fascination with colossal sculpture. He returned to Egypt in 1869 with a proposal to create a lighthouse--in the form of a gigantic draped figure holding a torch--at the entrance to the newly completed Suez Canal. The commission never came, but his plan found a new form later in the Statue of Liberty.
Throughout the 1860s Bartholdi worked on well-received patriotic monuments for Colmar, including one to the painter/engraver Martin Schongauer (1861-1863, Musée Bartholdi, Colmar) and the fountain memorial to Admiral Bruat (1856-1864). As an officer during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, he took part in the defense of Colmar. Desolate over the French defeat and the loss to Germany of his beloved Alsace, Bartholdi channeled his anguish into monuments celebrating French valor in the defense against Germany. The most spectacular of these was the colossal Lion of Belfort (11 meters [36 feet, 1"] high and 22 meters [72 feet, 2"] long; 1871-1880), which was constructed of sandstone blocks against the side of a cliff.
In 1871 Bartholdi made his first trip to America, to promote the idea of a colossal statue of Liberty as a gift from the French to the American people in honor of the centennial of American independence. The idea of such a gift, according to Bartholdi, was first broached in 1865 by his friend Edouard-René Lefebvre de Laboulaye, an eminent professor of law, political philosopher, and scholar of American history. Laboulaye's intellectual circle, including Bartholdi, shared republican sympathies and a dedication to liberty. After the Suez colossus proposal fell through, Bartholdi reshaped his idea into a French statue for America, to stand on an island in New York harbor.
An able and tireless entrepreneur, Bartholdi campaigned throughout the 1870s to raise support and funds for the statue of Liberty Enlightening the World. Viollet-le-Duc and later Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), who would subsequently build the famous tower in Paris, designed the interior iron-and-steel armature that supported the copper sheets composing the exterior of the 151-foot statue. Constructed in Paris, the statue was then dismantled, shipped to New York, rebuilt, and inaugurated in 1886. During its production Bartholdi made frequent trips to America and left several sculptural monuments there, including a cast-iron fountain near the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (1878). He married Jeanne-Emile Baheux, a fellow native of France, in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1876. Continuing his energetic production of statues, portraits, and monuments, he exhibited in the Paris salons from 1853 until 1904, the year of his death.
The Statue of Liberty secured Bartholdi a fame perhaps disproportionate to his artistic talent, but commensurate with his ambition, drive, and showmanship in the promotion of great artistic undertakings. In addition to sculpture, Bartholdi practiced oil painting, drawing, watercolor, and photography. The family house in Colmar, maintained by the artist even when he lived elsewhere, became the Bartholdi Museum in 1922. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
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