Rodin Works: The Burghers of Calais
Rodin's 'Burghers of Calais' tell the story of the six distinguished citizens of the French coastal town Calais, who in 1347, during the Hundred-Years War with England, exposed themselves volunteerly into captivity of King Edward III to save their town from extermination.
Rodin won the commission for the monument of the town Calais in January 1885 after his first maquette, distinguishing itself from the more conventional designs presented by his five competitors, had been approved by the Committee in November 1884. Propelled by his ambition to win this public commission, the sculptor promised to deliver "six sculptures for the price of one".
Rodin described his intentions as follows:
"It is the subject itself which (...) imposes a heroic vision of all six figures being sacrificed to one single communicative expression and feeling. The pedestal is triumphal, it has the rudiments of an arch of triumph intended to uphold, not a quadriga, but human patriotism, self-abnegation and virtue."
Rodin's direct literary source is the chronological receit of historian Jean Froissart (ca. 1333-1410), describing how King Edward demanded the six citizens to appear bareheaded, only dressed with a shirt, with a rope around their necks and the keys for the town in their hands.
Instead of focussing on the first of the citizens who had volunteered, Eustache de Saint-Pierre, Rodin decided to portray six individuals. Instead of idealising the dignity of their heroic sacrifice, he revealed their misery and inner doubt and showed them in rough sack-like clothes. Instead of setting up a traditional pyramidal composition, he placed the six men on the same level, each of them occupied by his own personal conflict: 'Pierre de Wissant', who, on his slow procession towards death, turns round and lifts his right arm back, just like setting free a bird (Rilke); 'Jean d'Aire', on the other side of the monument, is standing upright with clenched hands but stoically reflecting his fate.
To reach a maximum of individuality, Rodin studied each of the six personalities seperately in different poses, dressed and undressed. Being convinced of his artistic conception, Rodin refused to serve given expectations. The second maquette of the Calais Monument was presented in July/August 1885, this time with a very low pedestal, showing six separate freestanding figures at one-third height. This time, the composition met critique, but Rodin insisted it had not been presented to negotiate a completely new design.
Since 1885 he mainly worked on 'The Burghers of Calais' and even though a financial crisis in Calais hindered the tasks of the committee and the realisation of the monument was not certain anymore, Rodin finished the group in the following years. In January 1886, three figures had been modeled in clay. In May 1887, three life-size characters were ready in plaster. The same year, Rodin showed these three completed figures in the Gallery Georges Petit; at the exhibition Rodin-Monet in the same gallery in 1889, he showed the complete group.
In 1892, the committee decided to finance the monument finally by a national subscription and a lottery. Only in the year 1895, more than ten years after Rodin had presented the first maquette, 'The Burghers of Calais' were inaugurated at the entrance of the Jardin du Front Sud, on a pedestal designed by the city architect Decroix, with an octagonal iron gate around it.
Rodin resented this installation and returned to his previous proposal as worded in his letter of 8 December 1893 to the Mayor of Calais, Omer Dewavrin, his Burghers could be mounted on a very low, "but impressive" basis on the Place d´Armes in the centre of Calais:
"..... very low to enable the spectators to penetrate the heart of the subject, like entombments in churches, where the group is almost at ground level. (...) In this way, the group becomes more familiar and plunges the viewers deeper into the tragedy and sacrifice of the drama."
In his later conversations with Gsell, Rodin even complained the "ugly and superfluous" pedestal of Decroix had been forced upon him, although he would have preferred the six Burghers to be anchored into the pavement directly – this way it would look as if the six men would walk between the inhabitants of the city.
In fact, the sculptor's grudge was mainly caused by the refusal of the Calais City Council to position his Monument either in front of the Town Hall or along the Route Nationale in the neighbourhood of the Pont Richelieu – an alternative location he had suggested. He felt the location in front of the public gardens was too much offside, as if the City was ashamed to present its brave citizens in their state of humiliation and despair – a suspicion he shared with Sir Schomberg McDonnel, Secretary of the London Office of Works, who had come to view the group in Calais and mocked Rodin's work had been installed before the background of a public urinal and a washing room.
As Thomas Appels demonstrates, it would be wrong to conclude, though, that Rodin would reject the idea of a pedestal altogether – his main concern was to reach an installation that would allow for the highest aesthetic effect. Whereas a low placement would bring the suffering of 'The Burghers' closer to the spectator and invite to direct identification, a higher position would produce a good contrast between the lively contours and the sky. Accordingly, the Copenhagen cast of the Burgers was put on a 1.40 meter high base, the London version in the Victoria Towers Garden even became a five meter high pedestal, like the Gattamelata statue by Donatello in Padua. Before, Rodin had raised a wooden platform on his Meudon property, to test the effect of such a high position. His revolutionary idea of a very low placement was only realised in Calais in 1924, after the sculptor had died and the exceptional quality of his disquieting - but meanwhile widely celebrated - monument was better understood.
Thomas Appel, Die Bürger von Calais, Auguste Rodins Intentionen zu Aufstellung und Sockel, p. 70ff.
Altogether, four life-size bronze casts were produced and erected during Rodin's lifetime: Calais, Copenhagen, London and Mariemont in Belgium. The Ca' Pesaro Museum in Venice owns a rare over-life-size plaster group. As a separate project, The 'Head of Pierre de Wiessant' was enlarged to monumental dimensions; the hand of the same figure was re-employed in 'The Hand of God'.
The Burghers were also cast and distributed as single figures. It should be noted that the names of the characters as we know and use them today, were only attached by George Grappe, Curator of the Musée Rodin. During Rodin's life, they were referred to as 'The Man with the Key', etc.
Between 1895 and 1905, LeBossé produced reduced versions of five of the six 'Burghers'; the figure of Pierre de Wiessant was never reduced, although Rodin intended to reproduce the entire group in this smaller format. The first examples of these small 'Burghers' were ordered by the banker Joanny Peytel; subsequently, this edition was in great demand among collectors, who now were able to purchase the famous 'Burghers' for an affordable price, in a size that fitted their private housing. [Anna Tahinci, Ph. D. thesis on Rodin's Collectors, p. 39] A selection of these small 'Burghers' was represented in an exhibition of the Glaskastenmuseum in Marl, Germany.
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