2-35. You Know This Woman

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She was born Charlotte Beysser, and if I showed you her picture, you’d say “Well of course, everyone knows her.” And yet you don’t know her name.

There are a few faces that most people in the world know, but there are only a very few that belong to 19th century women. Can you think of one? Would you recognize Louisa May Alcott or Harriet Beecher Stowe? How about Carrie Nation? There’s more hope there, as most history books have a picture of her wielding a hatchet in her attempt to drive alcohol from the land.

Here’s an interesting exercise. Google image search the term “famous 19th century men” and look at the results. See anyone you know? In my search, I recognized more than a dozen. Now do the same search, but with the term “famous 19th century women.” I couldn’t positively identify any. I did correctly guess Florence Nightingale and Susan B. Anthony. But the rest, I confess that even when they were identified by name, I didn’t know who they were.

But back to Charlotte Beysser. She was born in 1801 in France, and her original birth name was Augusta Charlotte Beysser. That’s no help, so maybe it’s helpful to mention that she had a son named George Washington? Oh, and her married name was Bartholdi.

Here’s another hint, she was made famous by two men, the more well-known of the two being none other than Gustave Eiffel, creator of the tower that bears his name. But still, this isn’t enough. While Eiffel is well known for his tower, he’s lesser known for an equally famous work that he built to the orders of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a sculptor who was very impressed with the Sphinx when he visited Egypt. So impressed was he that he designed a massive lighthouse to stand near the Suez Canal, but could find no one to back the plan.

So he pitched it to the United States, and after many years of fundraising, they agreed and the 151 foot tall statue of a woman was constructed and sent across the Atlantic in pieces. Pieces of the colossus were displayed in various cities in the Northeast, but the part that brings us back to Charlotte Beysser was dedicated in 1886. It is a statue of Liberatas, the Roman Goddess of liberty. And her face, based on comparisons to portraits, is that of Charlotte Beysser Bartholdi, the designer’s mother. And this is why there is at least one 19th century woman’s face that you can recognize.

As a side note, some Bartholdi scholars dispute this fact, but if you look at pictures of Charlotte, there is a strong resemblance. If Bartholdi didn’t base the face on his mother, who also acted as his agent, he was certainly influenced by it. As for the arm, that belonged to his wife Jeanne-Emilie, so yes, now you can say that you recognize the arm of a 19th century woman, as well.

You know her, but not her name.

You know her, but not her name

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