Centuries before Lady Freedom topped the U.S. Capitol or the Statue of Liberty dominated New York Harbor, images of women were already widely used to symbolize the traits, virtues and opportunities of the United States of America. Art historians have traced images of America's lady liberty back to the first years of European discovery and invasion, when America--the untamed New World--was symbolized as the Indian Queen, a voluptuous,but stern Native American woman dressed in little more than head feathers. Portrayed sitting astride a giant armadillo or sporting a tomahawk, the Indian Queen represented exoticism, danger and adventure: attributes that 16th- and 17th-century explorers most associated with their new land.
By the age of late colonization, however, the Indian Queen came to be seen as perhaps too savage a symbol for the settlers' new home. She was soon replaced with a tamer, more anglicized American image: the Indian Princess, a tawny, barefoot beauty often guarded by a rattlesnake. Pocahontas, a Native American woman who is said to have saved the life of Virginia's Captain John Smith, serves as one of the most memorable depictions of this Indian Princess. (For a closer look at the appropriation of Pocahontas as American symbol, see John Blackburn, Pocahontas: Icon at the Crossroads of Race and Gender in America). In the 19th century, the "Indian" in the face of the Indian Princess dissolved into a lighter-skinned, more classical image. Her headdress of eagle feathers evolved into ostrich plumes spraying from a bonnet or helmet. The European settlers began to adopt this once-upon-a- time exotic princess as one of their own.
In the years surrounding the American revolution, the image of the Indian Princess began to compete with emblems of the Greek goddess emerging from the European schools of classical art and architecture. "By the late 1790s," folk-art historian Nancy Jo Fox points out, "it was not clear whether a feathered Indian Princess had changed into a Greek goddess or whether a greek goddess had placed feathers or plumes in her hair" (Fox, 5). Alluding to the order and sovereignty of the antique democratic state, the Plumed Greek Goddess represented what the United States, an eager new country, wanted to be. Wrapped in a toga and wearing high-laced sandals, the Plumed Greek Goddess signified a merging of the neoclassical with the new iconography of America. She was sometimes depicted holding a liberty pole, propping up a shield of the United States, standing beside a bust or depiction of George Washington, or offering food to a bald eagle.
In the United States' youngest years, images of the Plumed Greek Goddess or the Indian Princess soon shared space, and at times meshed with, slightly different versions of the female figure of freedom. Columbia, sometimes considered the feminine counterpart to Christopher Columbus, emerged as yet another icon for the United States. Dressed in classical robes, but with a kinder face than the Plumed Greek Goddess, Columbia did not appear with plumed ostrich feathers, nor bows and arrows. But the liberty cap and pole almost always accompanied her, and the stars and stripes of America could be found on her dress or cap.
With so many varying forms of the lady liberty, it is no wonder that artists began to mix traits from the Indian Princess, the Plumed Greek Goddess and Columbia. Other figures merged with these images as well, especially the Greek representations of the Goddess of Wisdom (Minerva) and the Goddess of Liberty. The Goddess of Liberty, in fact, became "so intimately identified with the American cause as in effect to become Americanized.... we have either Liberty representing the United States or the United States interpreted as Liberty" (Fleming, 56). This Lady Liberty is, by many accounts, the most frequently portrayed of the four American personifications. With her hair flowing behind her, carrying the liberty pole or draped in classical garb, Lady Liberty became the emblem of choice for the U.S. cent and half- cent coins (Fleming, 56). A plaster statue of Liberty and the Eagle even stands above and behind the speaker's chair in the House of Representatives.
Today, representations of lady liberty blend and borrow from each of these images. The Statue of Liberty has been described by historian Marvin Trachtenberg as a "synthomorphosis" of forms (65), a term that aptly describes the way both the New York statue and Lady Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol were formed. Both statues include variations of headdresses, props and clothing: The Statue of Liberty is crowned with a helmet of sun-ray spikes, an allusion to the headgear of the Colossus of Rhodes, a monument to the Sun-God Helios standing astride a Greek harbor, which is said to be one of the key influences on the New York statue. The Statue of Liberty's gown folds around her like a classical Greek toga; the torch in her hand gestures back to images of Liberty holding out an offering to the Bald Eagle. Lady Freedom wears a helmet of plumed feathers, and looks, from a distance, like an Indian warrior. A circle of stars, similar to Columbia's accessories, rings her head. She holds a laurel wreath and shield in her left hand, while carrying a sword with her right.
Analyzing these two statues in particular, and understanding them within the context of the symbols they both carry, an interesting question emerges: Why were these particular signifiers chosen? Why is Lady Freedom crowned with a helmet instead of a liberty cap? Why does the Statue of Liberty carry a stone tablet and torch instead of a sword or shield? As historians have begun to uncover the context and pressure under which Lady Freedom and the Statue of Liberty were designed, deeper meanings behind these two statues begin to unfold--and their multiple layers of political, social and aesthetic meanings start to take shape.