The Burghers of Calais is a statuary group by Auguste Rodin commissioned by the city of Calais where the first bronze copy was inaugurated in 1895. It is one of Rodin's most famous works and has left an important artistic legacy. There are twelve original bronze editions of Les Bourgeois de Calais.
This work represents six characters (Eustache de Saint Pierre, Jacques and Pierre de Wissant, Jean de Fiennes, Andrieu d'Andres and Jean d'Aire), victims of a surrender ritual imposed by the English king Edward III in August 1347. It symbolizes the sacrifice of these six men to save the lives of all the inhabitants of the city about to be conquered by the English.
Rodin participates in the mythologizing of this historical episode, turning a banal ritual of surrender, of making amends and humiliation, such as was then commonly practiced in the Middle Ages after a siege, into an act of heroism by bourgeois saving the city from destruction.
This episode of the Hundred Years' War, the siege of Calais in 1346-1347 during Edward III's ride in that year, is based on the account of the medieval chronicler Jean Froissart in Les Chroniques de France. He reported the events during his time as a royal writer at the court of the King of England.
He was also a friend of Philippa de Hainaut, wife of Edward III and queen of England, originally from Valenciennes, as was Froissart. It is thus a French vision favorable to the king of England Edward III which is restored in this text.
Moreover, his credibility on this subject was strongly questioned when acts of Edward III concerning Eustace de Saint-Pierre were discovered by Bréquigny, in London, at the end of the eighteenth century: they mentioned that Eustace de Saint-Pierre, a so-called "heroic burgher" who had sacrificed himself for his city, was still living in Calais, and was even favored by Edward III.
In September 1346, Edward laid siege to the city of Calais, whose garrison commanded by the knight Jean de Vienne heroically resisted the army of the king of England. After eleven months of siege, the starving city negotiated its surrender. According to Froissart, Edward III, tired and irritated by the long resistance of Calais, agreed that six burghers would be handed over to him to be executed.
It was at this price that he allowed the inhabitants to live, but they were forced to desert their city once the English arrived. His wife Philippa de Hainaut managed to persuade him to spare the lives of these six unfortunate, desperate people who came before the sovereign in their shirts, with the rope around their necks and the keys to the city and the castle in their hands.
According to tradition, by this gesture of Christian love, Edward spared the lives of Eustace de Saint-Pierre and his five companions in front of a weeping queen. Calais became English on August 3, 1347 and remained so until January 6, 1558 when Henry II of France took the city from Mary Tudor.
It was on the basis of this text that Rodin found the inspiration to compose his work once he had been commissioned. In fact, since the 19th century, various projects initiated or supported by the Calais municipality have been devoted to the erection of a monument in honor of the patriotic devotion of one of the burghers of Calais, Eustache de Saint Pierre.
They aimed to legitimize a fundamental paradigm of thinking about the nation: the distinction between the small homeland (local patriotism) and the large homeland (national patriotism). On 24 September 1884, Omer Dewavrin, the mayor of Calais, whose port was in decline, wanted to commemorate the handing over of the keys of the city to the English during the Hundred Years' War with a strong act of prestige by recalling an illustrious historical past.
He proposed to the city council a monument representing the six burghers, a symbol of universal self-sacrifice, by launching a national subscription to reconcile the small and the large country. The sculptor Rodin, whose fame was growing, was recommended to the mayor of Calais Dewavrin by P. A. Isaac, a native of Calais who lived in Paris.
Finally chosen, Rodin presented a plaster model of the six burghers to the Calaisian erection committee in November 1884. His second model was not well received, as the members of the committee reproached him for giving a uniform image of suffering, discouragement and weakness, and for representing criminals condemned to torture rather than martyrs making a dignified sacrifice.
The original plaster cast of the first monument of the Calais region was not well received.
The original plaster cast of Rodin's first national monument was completed in 1889 and exhibited for the first time at the Monet-Rodin exhibition in the Parisian gallery Georges Petit, which opened on 21 June 1889. Its casting was delayed due to financing problems, the stubborn mayor Dewavrin obtaining from the prefect of Pas-de-Calais the authorization of a lottery in favor of the work in 1894.
The inauguration of the monument in Calais, which took place on June 3, 1895, was not without controversy : Rodin freed himself from the criteria imposed by the erection committee, and imposed his biases by taking advantage of favorable circumstances (the Sagot bank where the 6,950 francs of the subscription and the participation of the municipality in the erection of the statue were deposited went bankrupt in 1886, which led to the dispersal of the committee members).
Its representation in a cubic silhouette of a suffering humanity goes against the heroic conception of a pyramid-shaped monument (more grandiose) intended to highlight the exemplary nature of great men, but the mixed criticism and reservations that the statuary group aroused at the local level gradually gave way to a consensual appropriation.
Eleven bronze examples were cast between 1895 and 1995. The final legal casting took place for the Seoul copy.
Rodin depicts the six figures on a rectangular base of medium height (the sculptor's only concession to the erection committee, which wanted a triumphal pedestal), standing side by side, barefoot, wearing a shirt (like a martyr's tunic) and a rope around their necks. The statuary group in bronze weighs 1,814 kg.
The sculptor opted for a cubic structure, not a pyramid - as is customary for war memorials - and organizes his figures in a "slow procession towards death", in a spiral.
The statuary group endeavors, through the attitudes of the body and the expressions of the faces, to retranscribe the emotional and psychological states of each of the protagonists, offering a pathetic and human vision of absolute novelty:
Eustace de Saint Pierre is represented as a noble old man with beard and mustache, who carries on his shoulders all the suffering of men; Jacques de Wissant, stooped, moves forward resolutely, trying to chase from his eyes the image of a nightmare; Pierre de Wissant, body and face still turned back, sketches the first step towards sacrifice and has his arm raised, proclaiming all the vanity of the world ;
Andrieu d'Andres, with his head in his hands, seems to be given over to despair; Jean d'Aire, harsh and proud, his head held high, his hands clutching the keys to the city, defying death in a supreme effort of will; Jean de Fiennes, the youngest, with his chest uncovered and his arms open, seems to be transfigured by the awareness of the sacrifice he has made.
Rodin had to call on several of his assistants for this work, including his new assistant at the time, Camille Claudel.
The bronze sculpture, thanks to the casting from a mold, allows to multiply the works identically. Auguste Rodin, like sculptors since Antiquity, never conceived of a bronze as a unique sculpture. During his lifetime, after the 1895 inauguration in Calais, the artist had three other monuments of the Burghers of Calais cast and sold.
After his death, and in accordance with the arrangements he had made with the French state, the Rodin Museum continued the distribution of this work by making eight more castings of the monument. In 1995, in accordance with the legislation in force, a decree concerning the commercial activities of the Rodin Museum confirmed the limitation of original bronze editions to a maximum of twelve copies.
These were to be made from the terracotta or plaster models created by Rodin. In the same year, the twelfth and final casting of the monument was made for the Samsung Foundation for Art and Culture in Seoul; exactly one hundred years after the first original bronze edition, which is now on display in front of the Calais Town Hall.
The Bourgeois de Calais monument around the world:
There are also castings of the figures individually (Fontes Coubertin, 1988, after the 1887 model) in the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris.
The sculpture has also been reproduced and modified in various copies. We can quote: