The Burghers of Calais, Rodin's first completed major public monument, commemorates an historical event that took place in 1347 during the Hundred Years' War. The king of England, having besieged the city of Calais, agreed to free the inhabitants if six prominent citizens would surrender to him to be put to death. The six walked to the king's camp wearing sackcloth and halters and carrying the keys to the city. At the last moment, the English king's wife interceded on their behalf and saved their lives.
Rodin portrays the six citizens as they are about to leave Calais. Each man expresses his own personal anguish. To heighten the dramatic impact, Rodin exaggerated the proportions of the hands and legs, and created strong contrasts of light and shadow. Rodin produced several hundred studies of the group, isolated figures, and parts of figures, recombining these elements until the six burghers became a cohesive unit. The individual figures were finished by 1888; yet it wasn't until 1895 that the complete monument was unveiled in Calais. To Rodin's dismay, the city council harshly criticized the work, as it was a depiction of human crisis rather than a heroic-patriotic statement.
Pierre de Wiessant is particularly impassioned. His bent head, furrowed brow, half-closed eyes, and parted lips express deep sorrow and apprehension. His enlarged, muscular limbs, and the dramatic gesture of his right hand amplify the emotional impact of the work and convey the burgher's agony. Cloaked in the deeps folds of sackcloth, 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
Digital presentation of this object was made possible by: Ms. Joan Lessing, New York and Jerusalem