Notes from the Studio: The Iconic Face of Liberty

by Christine Cariati

This striking black and white picture, shot by an unknown photographer, is the face of the Statue of Liberty. It was taken in 1885 when the statue was uncrated and waiting to be assembled at Bedloe’s Island. I’ve had this picture tacked up on one studio wall or another for more than 30 years. During that time, hundreds of other pictures—inspiration, sketches and notes—have come and gone, but this one remains a constant. The scale (note the man standing frame right), the shadows and the intense gaze, create a dramatic image that has never lost it’s impact.

Model for plaster mock-up in Bartholdi’s studio, c. 1880

Stripped of all her symbolism, including the radiant crown, the torch, the  broken chains underfoot—and all of our many associations with the assembled statue and its abiding presence on Liberty Island in New York Harbor—what remains in this photograph is the powerfully haunting face, strong and beautiful. No one knows exactly who served as model for this statue by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. It is said to either be a likeness of Bartholdi’s mother, Charlotte, or Isabella Eugenie Boyer, the French-born widow of American industrialist Isaac Singer.

Whatever Bartholdi’s inspiration, it is always instructive to step back from an overly-familiar image and think about the meaning and depth behind it. This statue, originally entitled Enlightening the World, has a face worth taking a second look at.

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6 Responses to “Notes from the Studio: The Iconic Face of Liberty”

  1. This was a simple and quiet message for me…both visually and written messages. I have a way of forgetting how my ancestors move to this new world and we should recognize the sacrifices these people made for a a life in freedom. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

    My maternal grandmother came to America at the age of 15 in the Irish immigration came to America.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Your comment made me realize that I probably focused on that image at this time because I recently found out that my paternal grandmother came from (Northern) Ireland as a young girl, by herself, in 1910, to work as a maid in a big house in upper Manhattan. We grandchildren had never been told that story, but recently my cousin was going through some old papers and found post cards she’d received from home and the story unfolded…

  2. Thank you for this post. Liberty’s face expresses so much without portraying an identifiable emotion. It is truly iconic and a masterful work of sculpture.

  3. It’s really amazing to discover this eagle-eyed face and to look at it that way.
    I guess this powerful expression was a necessary condition to become the figurehead of a hole people.
    It is an affecting image of how art can carry an universal message through centuries…
    Regards from France.

  4. Christine,
    The awe and fascination with Lady Liberty has endured over the years. 2 years ago when I took the Staten Island Ferry, everyone rushed to the right side of the boat when we passed by the great Lady. I felt a chill in my spine at the power of the image and tried to imagine how my grandparents from Sweden felt when they saw her in 1914.

  5. This is the amazing moment a lightning bolt was captured as it struck the iconic Statue of Liberty.

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