“THEY ARE VOLUNTARILY BOUND TO THE SAME SACRIFICE, but each of them plays the role suited to his individuality, his age and position,” Auguste Rodin said about the heroic citizens of Calais; four of his six bronzes of the “Burghers of Calais” are currently on view in the Brooklyn Museum courtyard. The work was commissioned in 1875 by the Calais town council to commemorate events more than 500 years in the past (see Backstory, below), and Rodin’s winning proposal was solidly within the academic tradition of French Beaux Arts. Also, the story goes, he promised to deliver six statues for the price of one. But, as anyone on any side of the Atlantic Yards development can attest, what you think is approved is not necessarily how it turns out.
As delivered, the work was a major break with traditional Beaux-Arts monumental statuary. (Just a short walk from the Brooklyn Museum, an example of neo-classical Beaux-Arts style sits atop Grand Army Plaza’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch, complete with the pyramid-shaped arrangement of figures led by the allegorical figure of Columbia who represented the Nation.) In developing his work, Rodin drew on the account of a contemporary of the historic events in Calais, Jean Froissart, and learned the personal histories and social background of the six men who volunteered as hostages to save their city. Rodin worked from carefully chosen live models – including a descendant of one of the six heroes – and then deliberately oversized the hands and feet to make gestures and stance more expressive. These figures show the suffering, humiliation and humanity of their situation. Greatness has been thrust upon them, and it is agonizing.
Rodin wanted his figures to be met face to face at ground level in the center of town, another departure from the expected pedestal or tower platform for monumental statuary. “In this way,” he wrote to the town fathers, “the group becomes more familiar and plunges the viewers deeper into the tragedy and sacrifice of the drama.” The Brooklyn Museum presentation of the four figures, standing separately and only slightly elevated on their individual bases, fits well with the sculptor’s vision. The Brooklyn Museum figures are from one of the 12 castings from Rodin’s final molds that are sanctioned under French law, and are among other Rodin works in the museum’s collection. (Another “Burghers of Calais” full casting is across the East River, at the Metropolitan Museum in Outer Brooklyn, which has published an excellent guide to understanding the work.)
Backstory on the Siege of Calais
It was part of the 100 Years War. Fresh from victory in the Battle of Crécy, Edward III of England wanted a base in France and settled on the coastal city of Calais so conveniently located across the English Channel. It was a walled city with a double moat, and so once established, his base would be easy to defend. He began his siege on September 3, 1346, expecting an easy victory. But the fortifications made it hard to take, and the people of the city held out for eleven long months under tighter and tighter conditions until they were starving. Finally famine and lack of fresh water forced them to capitulate.
The king issued his terms: Six hostages, bareheaded, barefoot, stripped to their shirtails, with ropes around their necks, were to surrender outside the city gates, ready for execution, and in return for their turning over the keys to the city, the rest of the citizenry would be spared. In Froissart’s account, the successful businessman Eustache de Saint-Pierre was the first to offer himself. Pierre de Wiessant (seen at top left) and a brother both volunteered; Rodin showed their resemblance by giving these brave brothers the same hand gesture.
When the hostages were brought before him, the king ordered them beheaded, but by historical accounts, the king’s pregnant wife, Phillipine of Hainault, interceded successfully, saying she felt it would be a bad omen for their expected child. The six Burghers of Calais were spared and the blockade on their city was lifted.
Because of its almost-too-strategic location, Calais was subjected to similar sieges in 1436, 1558, 1596, and again in 1940.