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“The Burghers of Calais” by Auguste Rodin (Washington, D.C.)

The Burghers of Calais - Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden

“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 forced to surrender. The victors offered to spare the city if six of its leaders would surrender themselves and walk out wearing nooses around their necks, 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 is 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 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.

The lives of the Burghers were spared by the intervention of England’s queen, who persuaded her husband King Edward III, the victor siege to Calais, 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 to place the statue at the ground level. Today Rodin’s vision has become famous for its poignancy.

No more than twelve original casts of 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.

Siege of Calais

The Siege of Calais (1346 – 1347) was when the English army under the command of King Edward III of England successfully besieged the French garrison of Calais. At the start of the siege, although the English had surrounded the port, their siege lines were not tight, and the French were still able to get supplies into Calais, usually by sea. Once it became clear to Edward that an assault was unlikely to be successful, he tightened the siege of the city, including the sea approaches. The reinforcement of the blockade increased significantly and ultimately proved successful, and the town surrendered, due to the lack of provisions, nearly one year after the siege started.

The capture of Calais provided the English with a strategic port for the rest of the Hundred Years’ War. The port was not recaptured by the French until 200 hundred years later, in the 1558 siege of Calais.

Auguste Rodin

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917) was a French sculptor and one of the founders of modern sculpture.  Rodin was schooled traditionally and did not set out to rebel from the traditions of sculpture. However, Rodin’s unique works departed from traditional themes of mythology and allegory. Rodin’s passion was to model the human body with realism; however, some of his most notable sculptures were criticized during his lifetime. Fortunately, he refused to change his style.

With successive works, Rodin’s reputation grew slowly, and he became the preeminent French sculptor, and by 1900, when he was 60 years old, he was a world-renowned artist. Rodin is one of the few sculptors widely known outside the specialist visual arts community.

Events during Rodin’s Lifetime

  • 1840
    • Auguste Rodin was born in Paris
    • Claude Monet was born in Paris
  • 1848
    • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto
  • 1850
    • The death of Honoré de Balzac
  • 1859
    • Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species
  • 1861-1865
    •  United States Civil War
  • 1869
    • Suez Canal opens
  • 1886
    • Statue of Liberty was Dedicated
  • 1889
    • Eiffel Tower construction concludes
  • 1899
    • Sigmund Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams
  • 1900
    • First Paris Metro opens during the Paris World’s Fair
  • 1901
    • The first major exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s artwork in Paris
  • 1914 – 1918
    • World War I
  • 1915
    • Albert Einstein publishes his General Theory of Relativity
  • 1917
    • Rodin dies


  • How much history can one statute capture?
  • Does Rodin capture the defeat, self-sacrifice, and willingness to face death?

The Burghers of Calais

  • 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

Auguste Rodin

A Tour of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden


“I invent nothing, I rediscover.” 
– Auguste Rodin


Photo Credit: By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons