Although the Musée d'Orsay has recently renovated many of its rooms, and is about to continue its ambitious modernisation project in the coming months, there is one exception, an area that will never be altered, and this is the grand central aisle on the ground floor. Its proportions and the light that shines through the glass roof of this former station make it an ideal space for exhibiting sculptures
But from the end of June, the visitor will have a different view of the nave as they enter the museum: a small-scale model of the Statue of Liberty by the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) has been placed right at the start of the visitor itinerary. There is no doubt that the presence of this world-famous icon at the entrance to the museum, the most important of all American symbols, will very soon become established as one of the most powerful images of the Musée d'Orsay, both as one of the most important art works of the 19th century and for its universal significance.
In 1865, the academician Edouard de Laboulaye (1811-1883) first put forward the idea of France giving a prestigious gift to the United States to celebrate the centenary of American independence and to seal the friendship of the two nations. For Laboulaye and his friends, who were supporters of the moderate Republican party, this gesture also sent a message of opposition to the imperial regime of Napoleon III and to his foreign policy.
The project was entrusted to the young Bartholdi, and was entirely financed by private funding. He went to New York where he presented his idea of an enormous statue in the classical tradition of the Colossus of Rhodes. The first completed element of the work – the hand holding the torch – was unveiled at the 1876 Universal Exhibition in Philadelphia. The head of the statue was exhibited at the 1878 Universal Exhibition in Paris, where its appearance would be one of the main attractions.
Construction had started in 1875, even before the finance was in place, at the metalwork foundry of Gaget, Gauthier et Cie located in Paris' 17th arrondissement. The famous architect Viollet-le-Duc was originally responsible for the design of the structure, but after his death in 1879 it was, in the end, Gustave Eiffel who designed the metal "skeleton" that would support the many copper plates (preferred to bronze because of its lighter weight) that shaped the statue.
The final assembly began in 1884, and this 46 metre colossus could be seen gradually rising up above the Monceau plain. Just imagine! For a few weeks, one could admire the famous New York Statue of Liberty in the very heart of Paris. The elements were disassembled in early 1885 and packed into more than two hundred crates to cross the Atlantic to their final destination, arriving on 19 June 1885. But it still needed a pedestal… The construction of this was behind schedule and the Americans had difficulty in raising the funds required to finish it. But the pedestal was finally ready in the spring of 1886 and the statue was inaugurated on 28 October of that year.
Within a very short space of time, the symbolic aspect of the Statue of Liberty eclipsed the initial meaning of the work – the celebration of America’s Independence. Placed at the entrance to New York Harbour on Beldoe Island (later re-named Liberty Island), Bartholdi’s work would welcome generations of emigrants as they arrived by boat in search of a better life. It is this aspect that endures to this day, America having appropriated this gift long ago to represent the ideal of democracy and liberty. Furthermore, in 1903, the following extract from a poem by Emma Lazarus was engraved on the pedestal:
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
This version, a little under three metres high, was commissioned by Bartholdi himself in 1889, and subsequently exhibited in 1900 at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. That same year, the sculptor expressed a hope that the State would buy it, along with several other models including the Lion of Belfort, for the Musée du Luxembourg (the museum of modern art of its time). He declared that "these works are interesting because they have greatly contributed to the esteem in which I am held by my contemporary artists".
As there were no works by Bartholdi in the Luxembourg at that time, he undertook to give them some in return for the cost of the casting alone. His proposal was accepted, although the museum was unable to find a place for them in their already very full rooms. The solution was found in 1905, after the death of Bartholdi. The sculptor's widow suggested putting Liberty outside the museum in the gardens. It would stay there for 115 years, from 1906 to 2011, until the Senate, which owns the Luxembourg Gardens, generously agreed to return the work to the Musée d'Orsay.
So it is a true museum piece, designed by the artist to be exhibited in a gallery showing the art of his time. This has now been achieved, and we can only rejoice, not only in terms of its conservation, but also because Liberty is an important milestone in the history of 19th century statuary, and consequently considerably enriches the visitor itinerary in the nave. And finally because its universal character can only add to the Musée d'Orsay's international stature.