In 1907, the sculptors Hubert Louis Noël and Auguste Rubin raised a bronze statue in the parc du chateau d’eau in Colmar. You can still see it on the corner of the park, right next to the sidewalk. It depicts their teacher, friend and mentor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who is doubtlessly one of the most illustrious sons of Colmar. It shows the sculptor leaning on the edge on a table, his gaze resting on something far away in the distance. Behind him on the table sits a small model of the one sculpture that has brought him worldwide reputation – the statue of liberty that has been proudly guarding the harbor of New York since 1886.
The father of lady liberty was born in Colmar in 1834 to a well-to-do family with French, Southern German and Italian roots. His father died when little Frederic Auguste was only 2 years old and his mother decided to move to Paris with her children but kept the family home in the Rue de Marchand in Colmar. The stately stone house in the middle of the old town was still used for prolonged stays in Colmar by all the Bartholdi family members and was turned into the Bartholdi museum in 1922. Frederic Auguste received his professional training as an artist at the renowned École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, the finest art school of the country that can boast of alumni like Renoir and Degas.
Little is known about Bartholdi’s private life. We know that he got married at the age of 41 to a lady named Jeanne-Emilie Baheux in Newport, Rhode Island in 1875. We don’t even know Jeanne-Emilie’s birth date, nor do we know a lot about her. She remains a shadowy figure in the background, a mere specter behind her husband although their marriage, if childless, was a happy one according to all accounts. Bartholdi also maintained a loving relationship with his mother – historians still debate whether Lady Liberty’s face was modeled on the features of the sculptor’s wife or his mother.
Although Bartholdi never lived permanently in Colmar, his relationship with his hometown remained very close – even his first major project was commissioned by the city council of Colmar. In 1854, Bartholdi was commissioned to make a bronze statue of another famous son of the city: General Jean Rapp, a Napoleonic general who fought alongside the French emperor all over Europe and got wounded during the ill-fated passage of the Berezina during the Russian campaign in 1812. At the age of 20, Bartholdi created this breath-taking statue that was presented at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855 before it was moved to Colmar a year later where it was raised on the Champs du Mars. You can still see it there, an energetic figure in his imperial uniform with the rapier firmly in his hand.
After the great success of his sculpture of General Rapp, other commissions both public and private followed. Well-off citizens would have funerary monuments and tombstones carved and sculpted by Bartholdi and he also gained an increasingly good reputation as the sculptor of meaningful sculptures. In Colmar, it seems that he quickly became the go-to artist whenever the city wanted to honor one of its sons. When you take a stroll through the historic center of Colmar, you’ll come by seven of Bartholdi’s beautiful works: there is the fountain built in tribute to Colmar-born Admiral Armand-Joseph Bruat (1796-1855) who played a major role in the French Navy and made significant conquests in the French colonies. The sandstone fountain originally represented the four continents Europe, Asia, America and Africa, but it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940 who did a lot of damages to several of Bartholdi’s works in Colmar. Over a decade after the war, the Bruat’s bronze statue was restored and placed on a new fountain Another stunning Bartholdi fountain was raised in 1888 and shows the statue of Jean Roesselmann who was prevost of Colmar in the 13th century. The Schwendi Fountain, the statues of Gustave Adolphe Hirn and the endearing “Little Winemaker” are all eminent reminders of the great talent of the sculptor as well as his fondness for his birthplace.
Probably, Bartholdi would have been more than happy to sculpt statue after statue undisturbed, but he lived in turbulent times, and as a born Alsatian, Bartholdi could not remain unmoved by the events of 1870. The Alsace had been fought over by the Germans and the French for centuries and when Bismarck waged war on France in 1870, Bartholdi served as a squadron leader of the National Guard and saw action in the defense of Colmar. The defeat of France and the resulting German occupation of the Alsace greatly upset and unsettled Bartholdi – you can see how he tried to cope with his despair in his works during the 1870/80s: they are pure demonstrations of French heroism, the climax of which certainly is the Lion of Belfort which he started working on in 1871. The Alsatian city of Belfort was one of the last theaters of the Franco-Prussian war and withstood a Prussian siege for 103 days before surrendering in February 1871. In 1875, the city council of Belfort commissioned Bartholdi to build a monument to commemorate these days of hardship. Within the next 5 years, Bartholdi created the enormous statue of a lion, made from red Vosges sandstone. The snarling lion sums up the rage of a whole region and certainly echoes Bartholdi’s feelings about being ceded to the Germany Empire after the disastrous outcome of that war.
1871 was also the year Bartholdi traveled to the United States for the first time. By now, he was a sculptor of sound reputation in France, but was relatively unknown still abroad. The trip revived an idea which had been addressed a few years before by his friend Edouard René de Laboulaye, a French author and close observer of American politics. With the centennial of American independence only a few years away, Bartholdi pitched the idea of a statue, a grand gift from the French to the Americans to celebrate the centennial. Bartholdi had once wanted to build a colossal lighthouse at the northern entrance of the newly-built Suez-canal: a 92 feet high Egyptian lady carrying a torch. However, he failed to enlist the Egyptian viceroy’s support for the project, but we can easily see where to look for Bartholdi’s initial inspiration for Lady Liberty.
The project took up most of Bartholdi’s time until the statue was finally solemnly inaugurated in 1886 and made this son of Colmar suddenly world-famous. It is surprising that given all the fame he suddenly enjoyed, Bartholdi remained such a firm down to earth person. He simply returned to his quiet life with his wife in France and worked on projects mainly for locations in France like the lion of Belfort.
Although he created so many breath-taking monuments, statues and fountains, he also worked with other mediums: throughout his careers he produced watercolors, oil paintings and drawings, and also became proficient in the new medium of his age, photography. These works are usually not commonly known and often not even discernable as Bartholdi’s works because he signed many of his drawings and painting with a pseudonym, “Amilcar Hasenfratz”.
In his late sixties, his health began to fail, and he contracted tuberculosis. The modest creator of one the most famous monuments in history died quietly and unheeded by the rest of the world in Paris on October 4th, 1904. He was buried in Paris in the Montparnasse cemetery.
Today, the name Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi doesn’t ring a bell with many people except in the U.S. and in Colmar. A 38 feet high model of the statue of liberty proudly guards main road leading into Colmar on a roundabout, commemorating the prolific artist. And his family home in the rue des marchands in Colmar was turned into a museum in 1922. A true must-see for any American who visits Colmar to pay homage to the man who gave the U.S. the most beautiful birthday gift in history!