On the front page of my newspaper on July 4, there it was, in full color. A major work of Baltimore-born artist-engineer-author F. Hopkinson Smith: the foundation under the Statue of Liberty. The photo marked the reopening of America’s favorite monument following the repair of Hurricane Sandy’s damage.
Frederic Auguste Bartoldi’s renowned sculpture’s totality is the product of a number of minds. There’s Frenchman E.R. de Laboulye, a legal scholar and Americophile who had the idea for the statue, originally, as not just a gift from France to America, but as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln and a celebration of the Union victory over the slaveholders in the Civil War.
Then there was US architect Richard Morris Hunt, who designed the ten-story granite tower that lifts the statue to its full 30-story height. Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, thought out the interior skeleton around which Bartoldi draped his 151 foot copper-bronze masterpiece, whose face he modeled on his mother.
And below all of these lies the work of Smith, who designed (and apparently supervised the construction of) the basic structure on which the whole monument sits. He was perhaps America’s then-leading lighthouse engineer. But he was a lot more. So much more that it gets hard to grasp how any one person could have such disparate creative successes in his 76-year lifetime
I used to have a 26-volume set of Smith’s complete writings. It included a bunch of novels, of which I barely recall two: Col. Carter of Cartersville and Kennedy Square. The first seemed rife with corn pone dialogue. The second had a quite memorable description of the death of Edgar Allen Poe. But Smith’s many short stories and travel pieces, while a bit stilted for modern tastes, often were shrewd and absorbing.
100 years ago, Smith was a major American writer, beloved by both the top critics and a vast and eager public. Two of his novels, Tom Grogan and Caleb West, Master Diver, were the #1 bestsellers of 1891 and 1898. Several of his fictions were later made into movies - albeit silent ones. Now no one knows the name—so you watch out there, Steven King. (Popularity with both one’s contemporaries and posterity is not completely unknown. just think of Mark Twain, or Tolstoy. But this seems far from the literary rule).
Then there was a third vocation of F. Hopkinson Smith, which was in some ways the most interesting and accessible. This was Smith the artist. Married but childless, Smith was an inveterate traveler to Mexico, Europe, and North Africa, where he executed thousands of drawing and watercolors in his later years. Nearly as popular in their way as his books, they sold out edition after edition of reproductions and originals. To my eyes, they show charm, skill and style but few of them are real grabbers. The literal-minded majority would be perfectly at home in the breakfast room of an old-fashioned 5-star hotel.
But I’ve seen one Smith painting that really transcends the norm. Not surprisingly, it evokes Liberty’s grand opening in October, 1886, where Smith, in yet another role, curated the monument’s inaugural art exhibition. Unlike all his meticulous little travel pictures, it’s a sprawling work in near-Impressionist style, celebrating America’s great new icon with a joyful surrounding of packed-full, pennant-hung steamers and sailboats. Among whom the statue rises, victoriously, from the harbor mists.
But for some personal reason we will probably never know, in this masterpiece, F. Hopkinson Smith left his own contribution to Lady Liberty’s eminence invisible.