Who Was the Model for the Statue of Liberty?

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French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned to make the Statue of Liberty in 1865. The arm, with its torch held high, was on display at the U.S. centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1876, but the full statue would not stand in New York Harbor until 1886. The statue was constructed from plans drawn by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, and dedicated by President Grover Cleveland. The inspiration for the statue's face is not known for sure, but likely candidates abound.

1 Mother

The most likely model for Bartholdi was his mother, Charlotte Bartholdi. People of his day noticed the strong resemblance, and Bartholdi never denied it. Lady Liberty shares her stern stare and features with Bartholdi's mother.

2 Mistress

The second most likely model was Bartholdi's mistress, later to be his wife, Jeanne-Emilie Bartholdi. They were married in 1876, long before the statue was complete, but more than a decade after he began designing it. Some of the confusion about the statue's face belonging to his wife may come from a common joke that Lady Liberty's body was based on that of his mistress. Of course, the statue is covered in long flowing robes with no truly discernible body.

3 The Widow

One other rumored candidate is Isabella Eugenia Boyer, the French widow of Isaac Singer, manufacturer of Singer sewing machines. The story went that Singer's death broke Boyer free of her husband's very strict bonds. It made her the perfect symbolic model for the Statue of Liberty. Boyer was a sympathetic French figure at the time, but unlikely to have modeled for Bartholdi.

4 The Painting

Bartholdi may have had several artistic influences, notably a painting by Jules Joseph Lefebvre called La Vérité, or The Truth. In the painting, a naked woman holds a torch high above her head, in a pose similar to that of the Statue of Liberty. Today the painting hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

5 Classical Influences

Two other sources, both from antiquity, may have shaped Bartholdi's final image of Lady Liberty. A classic statue of the Greek goddess Hera shows her holding a torch while wearing long robes and a crown. The statues differ in several notable respects, including the fact that Hera's torch arm is bent upward at the elbow at a 90-degree angle, and their robes and body positioning are different. Bartholdi is known to have visited the Middle East to study giant statues built by the ancient Egyptians, and may have taken inspiration, if not technical ideas, from his trip.

6 An African Woman

Some historians believe that an African, or possibly African-American, woman posed for Bartholdi, to show support for Union victory over the Confederate States of America in 1865. They point to early models done in black material and the unshackled chain at Lady Liberty's feet that once also bound her wrists. Problems exist with this theory, too, in that the Statue of Liberty does not have African facial features, the chains were removed from her wrists early in the design, no written proof among French or American benefactors exists anywhere, and the date on the keystone tablet in Lady Liberty's left arm specifically states July 4, 1776, the date of American Independence. Nowhere does it mention dates associated with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil War.

Over the course of a 15-year career, John Briggs has written for print and online clients. As a syndicated TV critic, his work appeared in some of the country's top dailies. He has a degree in political science from Temple University and took additional writing classes at NYU.