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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“The Burghers of Calais” by Auguste Rodin (Tokyo)

“The Burghers of Calais” by Auguste Rodin - Joy of Museums - National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

“The Burghers of Calais” by Auguste Rodin

“The Burghers of Calais” by Auguste Rodin is one of his most famous sculptures. It commemorates a historical incident during the Hundred Years’ War, when Calais, a prominent French port on the English Channel, was under siege by the English for over a year and was eventually forced to surrender.

The Hundred Years’ War was a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by England against France, over the succession to the French throne. Calais overlooks the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point in the English Channel and during this prolonged conflict, England laid siege to Calais. King Philip VI of France ordered the city to hold out at all costs. Philip, unfortunately, failed to lift the blockade and starvation eventually forced the city to surrender.

Edward offered to spare the city, if six of its leaders would surrender themselves to him, and walk out wearing nooses around their necks, and carrying the keys to the town and castle. One of the wealthiest of the town leaders volunteered, and five other burghers volunteered to join him. It was this moment when the volunteers leave the city gates that this sculpture depicts. Rodin captured the poignant mix of defeat, heroic self-sacrifice, and willingness to face imminent death.

“The Burghers of Calais” by Auguste Rodin - Joy of Museums - National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo - 2

The lives of the Burghers were spared by the intervention of England’s queen, who persuaded her husband to exercise mercy by claiming that their deaths would be a bad omen for her unborn child. Unfortunately, her son only lived for one year.

Calais commissioned Rodin to create the sculpture, and the work was completed in 1889. Unfortunately, Rodin’s design was not understood or appreciated and was controversial at the time. The public expected grand heroic statues on massive pedestals with the traditional heroic glory motifs. Instead, Rodin portrayed the Burghers in pain, anguish and noble self-sacrifice and intended the statue to be placed at ground level. Today Rodin’s vision has become famous for its poignancy.

No more than twelve original casts of the Rodin’s works may be made under French law. The first cast of 1895 still stands in Calais; the other original casts are exhibited in museums and educational institutions across the world. “The Rodin Museum” version is one of the twelve original casts and was cast in 1919 – 21 and installed in 1929.

Auguste Rodin

Auguste Rodin is generally considered the father of modern sculpture; he possessed a unique ability to model a complex and deeply pocketed surface in clay. Many of his most notable sculptures were criticised during his lifetime. Rodin’s most original work departed from traditional themes of mythology and allegory, he modelled the human body with realism and with individual character and physicality. By 1900, he was a world-renowned artist and remains one of the few sculptors widely known outside the arts community.

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Reflections

  • In 1889 this sculpture was controversial, and many rejected it. Should the initial rejection of many famous artists give us hope in our endeavours?
  • What does Rodin’s experience of initial criticism and rejection tell us about art?

The Burghers of Calais

  • Title:                The Burghers of Calais
  • Artist:              Auguste Rodin
  • Year:                Modelled 1884 – 1889;  Cast 1953
  • Place of Origin: France
  • Material:          Bronze Casting
  • Museum:         National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Auguste Rodin

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