In 1347, during a long siege on the city of Calais, France, the English king, Edward III, offered to spare the town if six prominent citizens would give themselves up. The troubled group you see are these men. As the story goes, one of the wealthiest town leaders volunteered first. Five other men followed his lead and then literally followed him, dressed in tatters, to the city gates.
This is the moment Rodin chose for this powerful sculpture, which many consider his masterpiece. Although they’ve been scaled slightly larger than life-size, the men aren’t depicted as celebrated heroes. Instead, they are individuals, linked by a shared purpose, and burdened by anguish as they walk to their execution. Fear is palpable in their fraught gestures and their faces reveal everything from reluctance to resolve.
This sculpture was commissioned by the city of Calais in 1884… but what Rodin gave them—this portrait of human suffering—wasn’t what people expected from public monuments at that time. What’s more, he specified that the figures should be set directly on the ground, not on a pedestal. He said:
I had thought that placed very low, the group became more familiar, and made the public enter more into the aspect of misery and of sacrifice.
As it turned out, the burghers of Calais were not killed. When Queen Philippa of England heard about their self-sacrifice, she stepped in and let the men go free.
The Burghers of Calais depicts an episode from the history of the Hundred Years' War. In 1347, after the city of Calais had been under siege for eleven months, six prominent citizens offered their lives to the English king, Edward III, in return for his promise to spare the city. Upon hearing of their bravery, Queen Philippa interceded and obtained their release. In 1884, Rodin was commissioned by the city of Calais to produce a monument honoring the six burghers. Rodin rejected the established conventions of public sculpture and portrayed the men not as glorious heroes, but as troubled and isolated individuals brought together by their anguish and common purpose. He depicted the emaciated figures departing, dressed in tattered sackcloth, to surrender themselves to the English army. Features and proportions are distorted to intensify the expressiveness of the figures struggling with their conflicting thoughts of fear, indecision, anguish, and nobility.
- Artist Name: Auguste Rodin (French, 1840-1917)
- Title: The Burghers of Calais
- Date: 1884-95
- Medium: Bronze
- Edition: Edition of 12, Cast No. 10
- Dimensions: 82-1/2 x 93-1/2 x 70-3/4 in. (209.6 x 237.5 x 179.7 cm)
- Credit Line: Norton Simon Art Foundation
- Accession Number: M.1968.04.S
- Copyright: © Norton Simon Art Foundation
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