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The Most Famous (Historical) Topless Lady

January 5th, 2014 No comments

Let’s face it: Americans are prudes. I first learned this when traveling overseas, and found that people from other countries are not freaked out about exposed skin the way Americans are. For example, in South Africa, people did not need changing tents on the beach, they simply changed into their swimsuits. And no-one cared. The little kids ran and played on the beach naked. And no-one cared. In America, people would be scandalized. It wasn’t always that way, but it seems Victorian sensibilities have been stuck in our society for quite a while, at least among the more conservative elements. Refer to this amusing bit of prudery.
And this one.
liberty-leading-the-people-eugc3a8ne-delacroix-1830Racy Lady Liberty
But what about the topless lady I speak of? Why, none other than Lady Liberty! One of the most famous paintings depicting Liberty comes out of the French July Revolution of 1830, one of many struggles for liberty in France. This is Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. In this painting Liberty, in the person of Marianne, is gallantly waving the French Tricolors, leading the Parisians in their quest for freedom and democracy. Why the exposed breasts? Some historians attribute this to the Romantic style of the painting with classical references – in the classics women are very often unclothed. Another reason is that Marianne is an allegorical figure, an idea rather than a real person, and the rules regarding exposed flesh were different for mythical figures. [1]
When the French sculpture Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned to create the Statue of Liberty as part of an 1876 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, he created Liberty in more modest garb, perhaps to accommodate American tastes? (Actually, due to funding and other delays, the statue was a bit late for the 1876 centennial of the Declaration of Independence: it was not finished until 1886.) [2]

Original Standing Liberty quarter with breast exposed.

Original Standing Liberty quarter with breast exposed.

The “Dirty” Quarter
Here’s a famous incident involving American squeamishness over nudity: in 1916, the U.S. Mint debuted a new quarter featuring a Standing Liberty. On the new quarter, Liberty is shown in the classical style with one breast exposed. According to some sources, public outcry immediately ensued, and the Mint was forced to quickly redesign the new “obscene” quarter. [3]
Redesigned Standing Liberty quarter with chain-mail vest.

Redesigned Standing Liberty quarter with chain-mail vest.

Perhaps making a veiled statement about the hub-bub, the sculptor, Hermon Atkins MacNeil, corrected the situation by depicted Liberty wearing a chain-mail vest covering the offending torso up to her neck, rather than simply rearranging her gown. You should know there is an alternate version to the story. [4] Some historians don’t accept the “public outcry” explanation. You see, in 1916 America was very concerned about defense and was about to reluctantly enter World War I. In this atmosphere Liberty was depicted in a defensive posture (note that she’s holding a shield). The Mint may have belatedly decided it was inconsistent for Liberty to be so vulnerable in her dress and should be better protected. To me, the addition of the chain-mail vest is the inconsistency, since the shield, depicting defense, is on the left side of the figure, while Liberty’s right side, where she’s holding an olive branch, represents peace. Also, if the officials at the Mint thought there was a design inconsistency, why would that have not been fixed before going into production? An ironic side-note is that, due to the quick design change, the “breast-exposed” quarter became an immediate collector’s item.

A well-endowed Mexican Libertad.

A well-endowed Mexican Libertad.


The Rest of the World
Other countries are not so worried about Liberty’s modesty.
Liberty is shown breaking the chains of tyranny in this Chilean 10 Pesos coin.

Liberty is shown breaking the chains of tyranny in this Chilean 10 Pesos coin.

Note these coins from Mexico and Chile depicting a winged Libertad. No worries here about using the classical form.
On the French 50 Francs coin, Liberty (on the left) stands with Hercules and Justice.

On the French 50 Francs coin, Liberty (on the left) stands with Hercules and Justice.

See also this French coin with Liberty (the figure on the left holding a Liberty Cap on a pole) next to Hercules and Justice.

Sources:
[1] Romanticism in France Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, smarthistory.org
[2] History of The Statue of Liberty, statueofliberty.org
[3] The Bare-Breasted Liberty Quarter – 1916 & 1917 Standing Liberty Type, by Susan Headley, About.com/coins
[4] Standing Liberty Quarter, StandingLibertyQuarter.org

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

February 13th, 2011 No comments
Harriett Beecher Stowe

Harriett Beecher Stowe

The best-selling novel of the 19th Century, and the second best-selling book in that century after the Christian Bible, is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This sentimental anti-slavery novel is an early example of using literature to affect social change. The book was published in 1852, as the nation was beginning to experience significant problems with the “Compromise of 1850″, that series of legislative acts which attempted once more to reconcile the irreconcilable differences between North and South over slavery. [1] Stowe, an active abolitionist born in Connecticut, wrote the book in response to the most abhorrent (to abolitionists) part of the compromise – The Fugitive Slave Act. Her immediate objective was to raise doubts about the Southern portrayal of slavery as a necessary and just institution. The book is listed among the most influential books of all time, among such titles as The Illiad and The Communist Manifesto. [2] It was as popular in Britain as the (Northern) United States, and was translated into all major languages. As you might guess, it was virulently despised in the South. In its time it was widely viewed as a stepping stone on our inexorable path to Civil War, and an urban myth says that Abraham Lincoln, when meeting Stowe in 1862, quipped “So this is the little lady who started this great war”. [3]

Cover of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Cover of Uncle Tom's Cabin

While it is certain that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a positive social impact in terms of shifting Northern attitudes more strongly against slavery (and possibly helping secure Lincoln’s election in 1860), the book is viewed today with mixed feelings. This is because it inadvertently helped create a number of stereotypes about blacks, some of which persist today. These include the “Uncle Tom” stereotype of the long-suffering but loyal black man who is devoted to his white master, and the “Mammy” archetype of the loud and overweight but good-natured black nanny.

Vox’s Take: From our 21st Century viewpoint, it may be hard to understand how deeply racist our country has been throughout our history, and that for much of that history it was a social norm, not an individual’s character defect. We tend to think that a person such as an abolitionist, who was passionately opposed to slavery, was automatically a believer in racial equality. But that’s not how folks thought back then – views were much more complex than that. There were believers in racial equality at the time of the Civil War, but this viewpoint was radical and on the fringe. The great majority of people, even those opposed to slavery, took it for granted that the black race was inferior to the white. Those beliefs, widespread and entrenched as they were, took a long time to change. That’s part of why there’s 99 years between the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which finally began to codify equality in the law.

Sources:
[1] Compromise of 1850, Library of Congress
[2] The Most Influential Books in History, goodreads.com
[3] Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Wikipedia