The Burghers of Calais was Rodin’s first completed major public monument. It commemorates a dramatic historical event, which took place in 1347, during the Hundred Years’ War. King Edward III of England, having besieged the city of Calais for one year, agreed to free the inhabitants if six prominent citizens would surrender to him to be put to death. After bidding farewell to their families at the city gate, the six walked to the king’s camp wearing sackcloth and halters and carrying the keys to the city. At the last moment, however, the pregnant wife of Edward III, Queen Philippa, interceded on their behalf and saved their lives.
Rodin portrays these secular martyrs at a unique psychological moment, as they are about to depart from the city to march to the English king’s camp. Each man expresses his own personal anguish, as the six stand united in a common fate. To heighten the dramatic impact of the work, Rodin freely exaggerated the proportions of the hands and legs, and created strong contrasts of light and shadow. Rodin worked on the monument by first designing small nudes of each burgher (such as the Study for Nude Figure of Pierre de Wiessant) then enlarging and clothing them. He separately modeled hands (see Hand of Pierre de Wiessant), feet, legs, and heads. Several hundred studies of the group, isolated figures and parts of figures were produced. The sculptor combined and recombined the parts until the six Burghers became a cohesive group. The individual figures of the burghers were finished by 1888, yet only in 1895 was the complete monument cast in bronze and unveiled in Calais. To Rodin’s dismay, the city council of Calais harshly criticized the work, as it was a depiction of human crisis rather than a heroic-patriotic statement.
The final full-scale Pierre de Wiessant, later incorporated into the group of six burghers, is a particularly impassioned figure. His downward leaning, monumental head, furrowed brow, half-closed eyes, and parted lips express deep sorrow and apprehension. The figure's enlarged, muscular limbs, and the dramatic gesture of his right hand, raised as if questioning the justice of his destiny, amplify the emotional impact of the work, and convey the agony of the hallowed burgher. Barefooted, cloaked in the deep folds of sackcloth and ropes, Pierre's twisted, elongated body and tragic face recall Gothic representations of Christ as the “Man of Sorrows.”
From the Israel Museum publications:
Spitzer, Judith, The Billy Rose Art Garden, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2004, English
The Israel Museum, Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005
Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Painting and Sculpture, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2006, English / Hebrew
We the People: New in Contemporary Art, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 20/09/2015 - 31/12/2015
Digital presentation of this object was made possible by: Ms. Joan Lessing, New York and Jerusalem