“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 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 intervention of England’s queen spared the lives of the Burghers. She 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.
The 1895 cast of the group of six figures still stands in Calais. Other original casts can be seen at:
- Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC
- National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo
- Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California
- Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
- Rodin Museum in Philadelphia
- Victoria Tower Gardens in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament in London
- Musée Rodin in Paris
- Kunstmuseum in Basel
- Glyptoteket in Copenhagen
- Musée royal de Mariemont in Morlanwelz, Belgium
- Plateau in Seoul.
Copies of individual statues can be seen at:
- Stanford University, USA
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the Sculpture Garden, USA
- Visual Arts Center at Davidson College
- Sommerro Park in Oslo, Norway
- World One Trade Center, NY
Calais in northern France overlooks the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point in the English Channel, which is only 34 km (21 mi) wide. It is the closest French town to England, and the White Cliffs of Dover can easily be seen on a clear day from Calais.
Due to its position, Calais since the Middle Ages has been a significant port and a vital center for transport and trading with England. Calais came under English control after Edward III of England captured the city in 1347, followed by a treaty in 1360 that formally assigned Calais to English rule.
Though Edward III spared the lives of the Burghers, he drove out most of the French inhabitants and settled the town with English. Calais then grew into a thriving center for wool production and came to be called the “brightest jewel in the English crown” owing to its great importance as the gateway for the tin, lead, lace and wool trades. Calais remained under English control until its capture by France in 1558. The town was virtually razed to the ground during World War II when in 1940, it was a bombing target of the invading German forces who took the city during the Siege of Calais. During World War II, the Germans built massive bunkers along the coast in preparation for launching missiles on England.
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 criticized during his lifetime. Rodin’s most original work departed from traditional themes of mythology and allegory, he modeled the human body with realism and with individual character and physicality. By 1900, he was a world-renowned artist and remained one of the few sculptors widely known outside the arts community.
- In 1889 this sculpture was controversial, and many rejected it. Should the initial rejection of many famous artists give us hope in our endeavors?
- 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
- Name: François-Auguste-René Rodin
- Born: 1840 – Paris, France
- Died: 1917 (aged 77) – Meudon, France
- Nationality: French
- Notable work
- Eternal Springtime
- Two Hands
- The Cathedral
- The Hand of God
- The Thinker
- The Gates of Hell
- The Hand from the Tomb
- The Sirens
- Young Mother in the Grotto
- Colossal Head of Saint John the Baptist
- The Secret
- “The Thinker” at the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia (Full Size)
- The Burghers of Calais (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)
- The Burghers of Calais (Rodin Museum)
- The Burghers of Calais (National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo)
Highlights of the National Museum of Western Art
- “The Burghers of Calais” by Auguste Rodin
- “Water Lilies” by Claude Monet
- “Saint Michael and the Dragon” by Sienese School
“True artists are almost the only people who do their work for pleasure.”
– Auguste Rodin
Photo Credit: By Joyofmuseums