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Armed Liberty


Last Sunday the most widely visible woman in Washington was removed from her accustomed perch for a thorough going-over. And on Mother's Day at that. With a tug from a Sikorsky skycrane helicopter, the female statue atop the U.S. Capital was hoisted away, her green, patinaed skin to be cleaned and her joints examined during a five-month restoration.

The 70-ton, 19-foot-high behemoth is generally known as the Statue of Freedom, although one popular encyclopedia refers to it as both Columbia and Armed Liberty in the same volume. Armed indeed, for though the woman with the resolute gaze is clad in classically-inspired drapery, her right hand rests upon the hilt of a sword while her other one steadies a wreath against a shield. The robes of this peaceful yet fully-armed warrior-woman are held at the waist by a brooch inscribed with the letters "U.S.," a detail discernible only to observant birds flying nearby.

Freedom's head was supposed to have been covered by a Liberty cap of the type worn by the female symbol of France in Eugene Delacroix's painting "Liberty Leading the People" and featured in a scene in the musical "Les Miserables." But then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis intervened, suggesting a plumed helmet instead, which explains why Freedom's coiffure is hidden by an armored headpiece replete with Indian feathers and an eagle's head.

The sculptor was Thomas Crawford, a New Yorker who was apprenticed to a wood carver in 1827, at the age of 14. After additional training cutting decorations and inscriptions for tombstones, he left to study in Rome, the first American sculptor to settle there.

Inspired by examples from Roman antiquity and neo-classicism, Crawford was soon hailed as the individual who "would enable America to be rescued from dependence on European artists." In his studio in the Piazza di Termini he fashioned a number of private and public commissions, including a group of marble figures for the Capitol on the theme of the Progress of American Civilization and a set of bronze doors for the east entrance of the Senate portico.

The statue of Freedom was destined to be his last major work. No sooner had the full-size plaster model been completed than Crawford lost his eyesight and died the following year. Among the works left unfinished, a set of doors for the U.S. House of Representatives was completed by Baltimorean William Henry Rinehart, and a Maryland sculptor named Clark Mills supervised the casting of Freedom in bronze in his Bladensburg studio.

At noon on December 1, 1863, less than two weeks after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, a battery of artillery pieces ringing wartime Washington fired a simultaneous salvo, signaling that the final section of the sculpture, Freedom's head, should be hoisted atop her already-assembled bronze body on the crown of the Capitol dome.

One will have to wait until the lush green leaves of summer are transformed into an autumnal spectrum to gaze again at Crawford's creation when it is reset on its pedestal some 300 feet above the ground.

Bennard Perlman is a Baltimore artist and writer.

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