One of my most fond travel memories is my visit to the Rodin Museum in Paris (side note: come to Paris with me next summer please!). The museum is his old house, and it is filled inside and out with his emotional and stunning sculptures. I remember sitting on the ground sketching the sculptures just so I could spend more time looking at them. Rodin sculptures are to be savored!
The Burghers of Calais was commissioned by the city of Calais to commemorate an important historical event from the Hundred Years War. During the war, King Edward III of England invaded the French town of Calais and Philip VI ordered the city to withstand the attack. The people of Calais were starving, and they eventually had to surrender.
Edward offered to spare the people of the city of six of the town citizens would volunteer to surrender themselves to him. Six of the towns wealthiest men volunteered, knowing they would probably be executed. They walked to the city gates together painfully aware of their fate.
This is the moment that Rodin captured in his artwork. His characters are clearly conflicted with deep emotion. They save their loved ones, but they know they are walking to their death. Ultimately, they were spared by the Queen of England who was pregnant and thought the deaths of these men would be an omen to her new baby. She convinced her husband to save their lives.
The town of Calais was not happy with Rodin’s final sculpture. They wanted a heroic monument to commemorate their bravery and sacrifice. Rodin, instead of putting them on a high pedestal to admire from below, put the men down on the ground at the level of the citizens of Calais. He made them larger than life-size and heightened their emotion with expressions as well as the texture and modeling of the sculpture. Instead of emphasizing their bravery, he emphasized their pain and humanity.
Other than The Thinker, The Burghers of Calais is probably Rodin’s most famous work. There are at least 12 casts of this sculpture spread across the globe, but the original still remains in Calais.
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