Recalling the monolithic figures of the Ancient World, the Sphinx, the Pharos at Alexandria and the Collosus at Thebes, La Liberté éclairant le monde was originally conceived in 1870 by artist Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi as a lighthouse to the newly dedicated Suez Canal. Perhaps inspired by Bartholdi's extensive travels through Egypt as an adolescent, he intended the figure to serve as a beacon bearing the title 'Egypt carrying the light to Asia'. However, to Barthtoldi's great disappointment, the Khedive of Egypt refused both the overall design and funding for the project. Eager to conceal the embarassment, Bartholdi shifted his focus to France, and more importantly to Edouard de Laboulaye, the French author of the three-volume work History of the United States and figure-head of the Union Franco-Américaine. The Union, and de Laboulaye in particular, felt the need for a Centennial gift to be delivered to America in commemoration of the camaraderie borne between the colonies and France during the Revolution. In 1875, Bartholdi delivered this symbol in the figure of La Liberté, a model with strikingly similar, if not identical features to his Suez monument.
The preliminary maquette, or study, for Liberty is only a slight departure from the Suez model. Bartholdi's 1865 lighthouse model shows a classically-, though dramatically-draped woman holding aloft a torch in her right hand, while her open-palmed left hand is thrust outwards in a welcoming gesture. However, between the failed Suez model and the first design delivered to de Laboulaye, Bartholdi either abandoned the project altogether or created very few, and now lost, maquettes which would have documented the change in his artistic vision.
What changes the artist did make closely resembles the finished monument now in the New York Harbour, with simplified drapery and her left hand grasping a tablet incised with the date of the Declaration of Independence. Only three maquettes of this definitive design are known, one in the Statue of Liberty National Monument collection, another in a private collection in Paris and the present model, all signed and dated 1875. Subsequent maquettes, now adhering to his overall final vision, did abandon only minor elements of these three models, noticeably the exaggerated contraposto stance of the figure. The final version appeared late in 1875 and from it Bartholdi developed his ultimate modèle étude, or 'study model' from which the monument would be born. The study, initially standing four feet high and now in The Statue of Liberty National Monument collection, was then increased to nine feet in height and finally to thirty-six feet aided by Achilles Collas's pantograph developed for reduction and enlargement in 1836. In order to increase the scale any further the figure was divided into sections.
Winning the contract to cast the 350 sections was Gaget, Gauthier & Co. of Paris, who completed the figure just prior to its July 4, 1884 arrival in New York Harbour to stand atop an American-funded pedestal designed by architect Robert Morris Hunt, famed for his design of several New York and Newport mansions. Having been conceived as a Centennial gift, Liberty was completed ten years late and the only pieces that were ready by the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia were the raised torch and hand, which were placed on view in Philadelphia and then removed to New York City's Madison Square Garden before returning to Paris.
On October 28, 1886 the massive monument was finally erected, the construction for which was overseen by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, who would raise his Eiffel Tower only three years later at Paris's Exposition Universelle. In 1889, the U.S. commissioned a gift in return for Bartholdi's and France's effort in the form of a bronze replica of Liberty cast by Thiébaut Frères, now on Ile de Cygnes on the Seine.