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Course: AP®︎/College Art History > Unit 6

Lesson 2: Modern and contemporary art

Rodin, The Burghers of Calais

Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais, bronze, 1884-95 (Musée Rodin, Paris)

Six Men, One Purpose

Have you ever been at a gathering surrounded by people and yet, felt completely and utterly alone? If you are familiar with those emotions - abandonment, loneliness, devastation— remember what it feels like and then take another look at the above sculpture by Auguste Rodin.
In 1885, Rodin was commissioned by the French city of Calais to create a sculpture that commemorated the heroism of Eustache de Saint-Pierre, a prominent citizen of Calais, during the dreadful Hundred Years’ War between England and France (begun in 1337).
We see six men covered only in simple layers of tattered sackcloth; their bodies appearing thin and malnourished with bones and joints clearly visible. Each man is a burgher, or city councilmen, of Calais, and each has their own stance and identifiable features. However, while they may stand together with a sense of familiarity, none of them are making eye contact with the men beside them. Some figures have their heads bowed or their faces obscured by raised hands, while others try to stand tall with their eyes gazing into the distance. They are drawn together not through physical or verbal contact, but by their slumped shoulders, bare feet, and an expression of utter anguish.
Auguste Rodin, detail of Eustache de Saint-Pierre, The Burghers of Calais, bronze, 1884-95 (Musée Rodin, Paris); (photo: Jeff Kubina CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rodin followed the recounting of Jean Froissart, a fourteenth-century French chronicler, who wrote of the war. According to Froissart, King Edward III made a deal with the citizens of Calais: if they wished to save their lives and their beloved city, then not only must they surrender the keys to the city, but six prominent members of the city council must volunteer to give up their lives. The leader of the group was Eustache de Saint-Pierre, who Rodin depicted with a bowed head and bearded face towards the middle of the gathering. To Saint-Pierre’s left, with his mouth closed in a tight line and carrying a giant set of keys, is Jean d’Aire. The remaining men are identified as Andrieu d’Andres, Jean de Fiennes, and Pierre and Jacques de Wissant.
Unbeknownst to the six burghers, at the time of their departure, their lives would eventually be spared. However, here Rodin made the decision to capture these men not when they were finally released, but in the moment that they gathered to leave the city to go to their deaths. Instead of depicting the elation of victory, the threat of death is very real. Furthermore, Rodin stretched his composition into a circle causing no one man to be the focal point which allows the sculpture to be viewed in-the-round from multiple perspectives with no clear leader.
Auguste Rodin, detail of Jean d'Aire, The Burghers of Calais, bronze, 1884-95 (Musée Rodin, Paris); (photo: Jeremy Yoder CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Commission

Rodin spent most of his young life looking for approval and recognition. He was denied entry into the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris three times, and yet he continued to push forward until he could finally gain professional recognition. So, imagine his delight in 1885, when he was asked to create a monument for Calais. The only problem was he wanted to do it his own way.
Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac, bronze, 1891-97 (Musée Rodin, Paris); (photo: Jeff Kubina CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was common in the nineteenth-century to depict an event with a single heroic figure. For example, Rodin’s later sculpture Monument to Balzac (1891-97), where the French playwright and novelist, Honoré de Balzac, is shown standing tall and alone with his head held high. This is similar to what the city of Calais was inevitably expecting from Rodin. As a result, they were displeased with Rodin’s concept—they wanted only one statue; the one of Eustache de Saint-Pierre. Instead, Rodin included all six men from Froissart’s account.

A Closer Look

While these six men, at first glance, may look fragile, the heavy, rhythmic drapery that hangs from their shoulders falls to the ground like lead weights, anchoring them and creating a mass of strong, unyielding bodies.
Auguste Rodin, detail The Burghers of Calais, bronze, 1884-95 (Musée Rodin, Paris); (photo: Elisabeth Rowney)
In fact, the fabric appears to almost fused to the ground—conveying the conflict between the men’s desire to live and the need to save their city. Rodin included raised portions of the floor under the men’s feet which would have, ultimately, made some of the men appear higher than others, yet they are all sculpted to be around the same height, that of an adult male. The burghers were not meant to be viewed in the form of a hierarchal pyramid with Eustache de Saint-Pierre at the top, which would have been typical in a multi-figure statue, but as a group equal in status. By bringing these men down to ‘street level,’ Rodin allowed the viewer to easily look up into the men’s faces mere inches from his/her own; enhancing the personal connection between the viewer and the six men.

The Outcome

Because the patrons wanted a heroic quality, with a raised pedestal that would place the figures in a God-like status high above the viewers, Rodin presented the city of Calais with The Burghers of Calais complete with a pedestal. However, the raised pedestal did not allow an audience to view the work of art as Rodin had intended. Therefore, he created a second version, one lacking a pedestal, to be placed at the Musée Rodin at the Hôtel Biron in Paris. Rodin’s goal was to bring the audience into his sculpture of The Burghers of Calais, and he accomplished this by not only positioning each figure in a different stance with the men’s heads facing separate directions, but he lowered them down to street level so a viewer could easily walk around the sculpture and see each man and each facial expression and feel as if they were a part of the group, personally experiencing the tragic event.
Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais, bronze, 1884-95 (Musée Rodin, Paris); (photo: Jeremy Yoder CC BY-NC 2.0)
Throughout his career, Rodin took risks and created his works of art in his own, albeit unconventional, way. As a result, Rodin set a standard for artists who came after him and his Burghers of Calais became one of his most well-known and studied works.
Essay by Elisabeth Rowney

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    The sort of "rough hewn" style of sculpture that I believe was invented by Rodin looks to have served as inspiration to sculptors such as Alberto Giacometti and Giacometti's own "rough" style, is that correct that Giacometti was influenced by Rodin?
    (5 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Ellen B Cutler
      I think is is impossible to understate Rodin's influence in the first half of the 20th century. Rodin died in 1917 and had been for 20 years the most well known, most successful artist in Paris--and possibly the west. If you are asking whether Giacometti was deliberately engaging with Rodin's ideas and exploring aspects of his style, I don't think so. Giacometti's "rough" style was the end point of a decade of struggle, of exploring the nature of sight, the implications of representation, the expressive possibilities of the figure. His earlier sculptures (1930s) were produced in the context of Surrealism and in terms of surfaces and mass were quite different. Yet Rodin's understanding of movement and his engagement with the fragment is something we see in Giacometti as well. So I guess that I, anyway, think the answer is a qualified yes... not that I see them related in direct terms.
      (7 votes)
  • leafers seedling style avatar for user matthew.gaertner
    Why is the sculpture impressionist?
    (2 votes)
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  • old spice man blue style avatar for user Roy Bell
    It would appear that apart from the original a total of eleven further bronze casts were made of this - depending on how much you trust Wikipedia. Only four (including the original) were made during his lifetime and, presumably, with his knowledge and under his guidance. (The one in London is the one I know.)

    My question is this: can the eight casts made after Rodin's death be considered to have been made by him?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      From the author:The short answer is yes. Rodin expected his work to be made in multiple. The more interesting question is why we so often value the original more than a copy. In some cases that makes sense. With a painting for example. But what about a print or a sculpture that is meant to be remade again and again. We don't expect a composer to play every instrument in a symphony which can be played again and again by different people. We are happy to read a story that is printed rather than from the original manuscript, etc.
      (3 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jin Park
    Why would the English king force the burghers to give up their lives? Of all the other things, why did that have to be the cost of saving their city?
    (2 votes)
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