“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 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 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 that the statue be placed at ground level. Today Rodin’s vision has become famous for it 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 stand in museums and educational institutions across the world. The “Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden” version is one of the twelve original casts and was cast in 1943 and installed in 1966.
- Title: The Burghers of Calais
- Artist: Auguste Rodin
- Year: Modelled 1884 – 1889; Cast 1943; Installed in 1966.
- Place of Origin: France
- Material: Bronze Casting
- Museum: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Artist Essential Facts:
- Name: François-Auguste-René Rodin
- Born: 1840 – Paris, France
- Died: 1917 (aged 77) – Meudon, France
- Nationality: French
- Notable work
“I invent nothing, I rediscover.” Auguste Rodin
Photo Credit: By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons