Perhaps Colmar’s biggest claim to fame is that it was the birthplace and home of the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the man who designed the Statue of Liberty.
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was born in Colmar in 1834, and became a student of Ary Scheffer at a fairly young age. Bartholdi came into the limelight early enough: in 1855, at the age of twenty-one, he designed a statue of General Rapp. Bartholdi died in Paris in 1904, but he lives on in Colmar’s collective memory. The city is home to a Bartholdi Museum, and all across, in parks and squares, are statues that he created.
We didn’t have the time to visit the Bartholdi Museum (which is off Rue des Marchands), but a stroll through Colmar’s old town gave us glimpses, not just of Bartholdi’s genius, but also of Colmar itself.
Clustered around the south of the Musée d’Unterlinden are some of Colmar’s other big attractions, the Dominican Church and the Collegiate Church of Saint Martin among them. Regretfully bypassing the Musée Bartholdi, we continued southwards, past the lovely Town Hall with its restrained stone carving, to the quarter known as Petite Venise.
All the tour guides and brochures wrote of Petite Venise in glowing words, but to us, frankly, it was disappointing. Yes, the canal is pretty, and yes, the gondola-like boats moving down it are picturesque. The half-timbered houses flanking the canal, with bright geraniums in their window boxes, are picture-perfect. So are the cobbled streets and the beautifully curved lampshades of the street lamps. But if you’ve seen Strasbourg’s Petite France, then Petite Venise is no great shakes: in fact, it struck us as just a reduced version of Petite France. Two streets, one slim canal, and that’s it.
But we came across a Bartholdi work tucked away next to Petite Venise, and that redeemed it for us, a bit. This is the Fontaine Roesselmann, created in 1888 by Bartholdi. Jean Roesselmann was a 13th century provost of Colmar who died in battle while defending the city from invaders representing the Bishop of Strasbourg. Bartholdi, however, gave the statue the features of a later hero: Hercule de Peyerimhoff, a 19th century mayor of Colmar who refused to submit to German authorities after the German annexation of Alsace.
This is an imposing statue, the warrior clad in mail and long surcoat, his head helmeted and one hand resting on a long, triangular shield. Below him is the fountain, carved from stone: the water drains from four carved stone lion’s heads and from the mouths of four large curved fish (the fish, like the statue itself, are of a dark grey metal, unlike the rest of the fountain).
Pleased with ourselves, we wended our way through the narrow streets snaking off to the west. Here we came across another statue, though not a Bartholdi. This is a stone replica of the famous Mannekin Pis statue of Brussels, a fountain consisting of a little boy peeing into a tank of water. An expression of solidarity and friendship between Colmar and Brussels, it’s only a few years old.
But we were on a Bartholdi quest, and it took us out of the cobbled streets and half-timbered houses of Old Colmar, down the Rue du Manege and to the Boulevard Saint Pierre. Here, tucked away in a strip of green lawn, shady trees and flowerbeds, we came to another landmark: the Monument Hirn. Gustave Adolph Hirn, who died in Colmar in 1890, was a well-respected 19th century scientist and philosopher. He was, from what I gathered, something like a latter-day Leonardo da Vinci: mathematician, physicist, astronomer etc, whose work in thermodynamics and petroleum technology helped make modern industry. Bartholdi’s statue of Hirn was made in 1894 and is very different from Roesselmann’s. Instead of a fountain, it sits on a pedestal carved on each side with the names of the disciplines Hirn specialised in (`Astronomia’, `Physica’, etc). The man himself sits in a chair, an overcoat draped carelessly over the back of the chair; one hand rests on the arm of the chair. The other hand is raised in what I presume to be a question. Interesting, though it lacks the presence of the Roesselmann statue.
A quick glance at our map, and we decided to go down Avenue Joffre, towards the towering Château d’eau. This is a water tower, 53 mt tall, built between 1884 and 1886—just about the time Bartholdi was reaching the peak of his career. The tower is decorated on the outside with stone arches alternating with bands of brick, and is topped off with a conical green roof, all very obviously practical.
What made this patch of Colmar interesting for us wasn’t the water tower (which, by the way, hasn’t been functional since 1984); it was the Bartholdi statue next to it. And this one isn’t a statue by Bartholdi; it’s a statue of Bartholdi. The man stands, bearded and self-confident, one hand resting on his hip, the other elbow leaning on a pedestal on which stands—obviously—his prima donna, a miniature Statue of Liberty. The statue, which was created in 1907 (and so, I suppose, has considerable historical significance in its own right), was made by Hubert Louis-Noël and Antoine Rubin.
After a quick walk past the nearby Cour D’Appel (the Court of Appeals, a fine Imperial German building with carved stone façade and green roof), we stopped for a breather and to get our bearings. A little bit of peering, and we realised that we’d actually walked off the official tourist map, so it was time to head back to civilisation. We did this by heading north, walking along the tree-shaded Boulevard du Champs de Mar. Not long after, we had to make a brief detour off to the west, into the large park known as the Place du Champs de Mars. People come here to stroll, chat, doze under the trees or canoodle; we came here to see another Bartholdi masterpiece, the Fontaine Bruat.
Standing in the centre of the park (eight paths radiate from it), the Fontaine Bruat is one of Bartholdi’s early works: it was inaugurated in 1864. This is also the most ambitious of the Bartholdi statues we saw in Colmar, a large circular tank with four sprawling larger-than-life figures, one each at the four cardinal points. These are allegories of the four continents, with Oceania’s face being modelled after that of the wife of one of Bartholdi’s friends. The lady in question, by the way, was the great-grandmother of Yves Saint-Laurent!
In the centre of the tank is a pedestal on which stands the statue of Armand-Joseph Bruat, Admiral in Chief of the French Navy during the Crimean War. The admiral stands tall, a more impressive figure than the four surrounding ones below him, even though they’re larger. We later discovered that these allegorical figures, along with the basin of the fountain, were destroyed in 1940. The original heads survived and can be seen in the Bartholdi Museum; the ones here were made in 1958.
And from there, pleased that we’d managed to see something of Bartholdi’s work (I still haven’t made it to New York City!), we headed back towards the Colmar railway station, content with a good few hours of sightseeing.