“From the very moment she was first conceived, she was meant to signify liberty,” explains National Parks Service ranger Danelle Simonelli, who has been sharing the history of the Statue of Liberty with visitors for over a decade. The statue’s origins trace back to the mid-1860s, when Bartholdi, a young French sculptor, began to develop an idea for a colossal sculpture—one that would rival the scale of the stone sphinxes he’d seen on recent a trip to Egypt.
After meeting Egypt’s then-khedive, Isma’il Pasha, and his director of antiquities, former Louvre curator Auguste Mariette, Bartholdi decided to propose a new monument for Egypt: A towering, veiled, robed female fellah (or slave), based on a painting he’d seen in Egypt’s presentation at the 1867 Universal Exposition. In his vision, described in depth in Elizabeth Mitchell’s book Liberty’s Torch (2014), she was intended to rise, unshackled, above the country’s new Suez Canal and hold a glowing torch to announce Pasha as the emancipator of slaves and his kingdom as a place of freedom. These were bold ideas that the khedive was eager to advertise, despite the fact that he never completely eradicated slavery from Egypt during his reign.
In the end, the khedive didn’t bite, but Bartholdi’s dream to forge a mighty emblem of democracy wasn’t stifled. Another opportunity had come out of a dinner party near Versailles, with a group of angry intellectuals ready to fight the increasingly tyrannical regime of Napoleon III. Together, they began to conceive of a gift to the U.S., to coincide with the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, that would honor its democratic rule and recent abolition of slavery. It would also serve as a not-so-subtle send-up to their own authoritarian government.