In 1885, the town council of Calais, France commissioned Rodin to create a sculpture that would commemorate an event that had taken place there more than five hundred years earlier.
In 1347 during the Hundred Years’ War, King Edward III of England held Calais in siege for eleven months. Struggling to survive after such isolation, the town was desperately low on food and water and had given up hope that any aid would come from the King of France.
To save their town and its people, six leading citizens (burghers) offered to turn themselves over to Edward in return for a promise that the town would be spared and freed.
Edward accepted the offer with conditions. He insisted that the burghers come to his camp dressed in very simple and plain clothing, wear nooses around their necks, and carry the keys to the city with them.
When they left the town, the hostages believed that they were walking to their deaths, and in fact Edward’s initial intention was to have them put to death. However, Philippa, Edward’s pregnant wife, interceded, because she believed that their deaths would be an ill omen that cast a shadow over the future of her unborn child.
The six hostages returned to Calais as heroes, and to the 19th century town council and people of Calais, that event, related in Jean Froissart’s fourteenth century Chronicles, represented civic pride, heroism, and patriotism.
In the monument that he created to the hostages, Rodin sought to capture the moment of departure, when each of the six burghers was isolated by the realization that he faced death and deeply engaged with his own mortality.
For Rodin, the strength of his conception and the artistic challenge that the monument posed were psychological in nature.
When Calais received the monument from Rodin, the city reneged on placing it at eye–level in front of the town hall, which was the original agreement. In stead it was placed on a pedestal up high in a less visible location.
It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the monument was taken down from its pedestal and moved to its originally prescribed location at eye–level in front of the town hall.
The 19th century burghers of Calais were not completely comfortable nor pleased with Rodin’s depiction of their 14th century counterparts.
In drawing out the emotional turmoil in each of the hostages at that moment when that hostage was willfully moving toward his imagined death, had Rodin violated his commission?
What perception of heroism did the town council of Calais seem to want and not get, and what perception of heroism did Rodin give them that they did not apparently want?
There are comments in our resources on Rodin’s Burghers of Calais that suggest that the monument broke new ground in the depiction of psychological and emotional states of mind.
Is it possible for artistic vision to catapult memorialization in a powerful new direction, such that it may take time for popular taste to understand and accept it?
Are there any parallels between Rodin and his Burghers of Calais and Maya Linn and her Vietnam Memorial in terms of artistic vision, controversy, and ultimate acceptance? What are some of the important differences?