Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Up the street from our apartment in the Marais in Paris is the Carnavalet Museum. Located in two magnificent, adjoining townhouses, the museum is filled with thousands of items documenting the history of the City of Paris. One of the most surprising is a small painting by Victor Dargaud. It depicts a colossal statue - La Liberté Eclairant Le Monde (Liberty Enlightening the World) -  in a  residential Parisian street. Wreathed in scaffolding, she lifts her copper torch high above the surrounding buildings. Fashionably-dressed 19th-century Parisians, perhaps on their way home from a Sunday stroll in the nearby Parc Monceau, gaze upward at this grande dame.

Last month as we prepared to leave Paris, it looked for a while as if the eruption of the Icelandic volcano might cancel our flight back to the United States. The painting came to mind as I began musing on the possibility of a transatlantic crossing on a stately ocean liner. At the end of the journey, we'd sail into New York harbor, where that same French grande dame - now known as the Statue of Liberty - would be waiting to greet us.

An icon of America and a symbol of welcome for millions of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, the Statue of Liberty was a gift to the United States from the people of France in 1884. 

The idea of a sculpture to commemorate French-American friendship was the brainchild of Edouard René de Laboulaye and a group of influential French citizens. De Laboulaye, a writer and politician, was an admirer of the American Constitution and a proponent of a French republic with similar democratic principles. In 1866, De Laboulaye gave the commission to the young French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who drew up plans for the Statue of Liberty. American funds would be used to buy the land and to pay for the statue's pedestal.

De Laboulaye wanted the statue to be ready for the Centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1876.  However, other commissions for Bartholdi, technical issues, the Franco-Prussian War and problems with financing on the US side pushed back the date. Liberty arrived in the United States - very fashionably late - in 1884 and was dedicated in 1886.

In 1900, my then 21-year old Italian grandfather sailed into New York harbor on the Georgia, a ship out of Genoa. On his way to the immigration center on Ellis Island, he passed the Statue of Liberty. He was seven years older  than the Statue herself, but she was already famous and he was just one of millions of people looking for a better life in America. Some years later, my Romanian grandparents would arrive and they, too, would gaze at the Statue of Liberty with wonder and some trepidation.

Next year, Liberty will celebrate her 125th birthday. She has been many things to many people: a symbol of  international friendship; a call for a democratic republic in France; a repudiation of slavery; and a beacon of hope to immigrants arriving on American shores. Most recently, in the wake of September 11, she has come to stand for  courage in the face of adversity.

As time has passed, Liberty's French ancestry has faded from the public consciousness. It seems that, along with my ancestors and millions of other immigrants, the Grande Dame of France has become an American - albeit one who still has an unmistakable French elegance about her. 

Take a virtual tour of the Statue of Liberty by clicking here.

To see more photos, click here.


All photos unless otherwise noted, by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor