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The Burghers of Calais

  • The Burghers of Calais 1
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During the Third Republic, France experienced a boom in interest in producing public monuments of historical incidents and important figures from its distant and near past. Even small cities, in an effort to foster a sense of civic unity, enthusiastically erected monuments to achievements of the local residents. Rodin's The Burghers of Calais was conceived in this spirit.

In the fall of 1884, the citizens of Calais, a city located in northwestern France, decided to honor their most famous citizen, Eustache de St. Pierre, with a monument supported by a national fund raising drive. According to Jean Froissart's Chronicles written in the 14th century, St. Pierre's deed contributed to extricating Calais from the siege of England during the Hundred Years' War. As King Edward III of England urged, six powerful men of Calais had to give their lives to the King in order to save other citizens. St. Pierre was the first to volunteer to be a hostage, and five more heroes--Andrieu d'Andres, Jean de Fiennes, Jean d'Aire, Jacques and Pierre de Wiessant--followed the richest man of the city. However, the episode came to a happy ending.

Edward III's pregnant wife, who was afraid of the legend that stated the threat of a death sentence would bring a bad luck to a child to be born, pleaded for the lives of the brave hostages.

In January 1885, the city council unanimously approved the monument design maquette Rodin had submitted. With the commission, Rodin immediately focused on the study of human bodies, both nude and clothed, after viewing many hired live models. In that August, as specified by the contract, Rodin presented his second maquette done in figures of one-third life-size. The design moved away from the conventional composition he had presented in the first maquette. The greatest differences were the disappearance of the high pedestal and the creation of the six figures as separate individuals within the group. This type of arrangement was to encourage a viewer not simply to look at the figures as sculptures, but also to participate physically and psychologically in his/her experience of the work in space. This new concept, however, drew much criticism from the city council and general public alike; what they had wanted was images of true martyrs ready to sacrifice their lives, not figures in sorrow, anguish, and despair before being executed. Rodin did not conceive of his figures as being heroic martyrs, but rather as human beings in agony attempting to rely upon their dignity and self-control despite the presence of despair and fear.