Fans of Lynn Curlee's books will applaud this addition to the shelf that contains Rushmore, Ships of the Air, and Into the Ice. Once again Curlee combines text and pictures to tell a fine historical narrative in his new book, Liberty, the story of the creation of the Statue of Liberty and its move to New York.
In the text, Curlee doesn't simply narrate the familiar history of Frenchman Auguste Bartholdi's idea of a tribute to America; he explains how Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel applied his legendary engineering skills to designing an armature for Liberty. He describes Bartholdi's own design innovations. And he points out how Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York daily The World, led the fundraising for the pedestal on Bedloe's Island.
Curlee's illustrations don't merely portray the text, either; they add to the story. For example, he tells us about young Bartholdi's trip to Egypt, which impressed him with the sheer scale of ancient monuments such as the Sphinx and the Pyramids. The accompanying illustration, however, shows Bartholdi with a mockup of the Liberty statue, and behind it on the wall is a drawing demonstrating how much Liberty owes to descriptions of the Colossus of Rhodes, an ancient Greek monument that guarded a different harbor. Curlee explains Bartholdi's interest in neoclassicism, the stylized revival of Greek and Roman ideas in art that was popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Curlee's own illustrations of Bartholdi and his contemporaries are also stylized, in an appealing hybrid of neoclassicism and primitivism. Many scenes of men descending the interior spiral staircase, of several horses pulling a wagon holding Liberty's head across an arching bridge, of workmen slowly building up the copper plates that form her robe are beautifully composed, active, and yet decoratively static. It's a wonderful effect.
Lynn Curlee is as much draftsman as painter, and the drawings in Liberty are precise and vivid. However, his use of acrylic paint is masterful. He allows the texture of the canvas to show through just enough, especially in shadows, to lend texture to the pictures. The result is a fine tribute, in words and pictures, to one of the crucial symbols of American identity.