The Bourgeois of Calais

The Bourgeois of Calais

  • Monument of the Burghers of Calais

    RODIN Auguste (1840 - 1917)

  • Burghers of Calais monument, London

    RODIN Auguste (1840 - 1917)

Monument of the Burghers of Calais

© Rodin Museum - photo Jean de Calan

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Title: Burghers of Calais monument, London

Author : RODIN Auguste (1840 - 1917)

Technique and other indications: London (Great Britain), Victoria Tower Gardens, cast 1908, installed in London in 1915

Contact copyright: © Demerzel21 -

Burghers of Calais monument, London

© Demerzel21 -

Publication date: May 2017

Historical context

A commemorative monument

At the beginning of the 1880s, Auguste Rodin had already suffered several failures in various competitions for public monuments. However, he did not spare his efforts to win these official orders, which allow artists to gain notoriety and financial stability. The request from the Municipality of Calais is therefore timely.

In January 1885, the mayor, Omer Dewavrin, obtained for Rodin the order of a monument commemorating a famous episode in local history: the surrender of the city on August 3, 1347, after an eleven-month siege led by the army. of the King of England Edward III. This event, recounted in the Chronicles of France by Jean Froissart, took place at the start of the Hundred Years War.

Born of a conflict of succession for the crown of France, which Edward III claimed from his cousin Philippe VI of Valois, hostilities began in 1337. Edward III brought the confrontation to the soil of northern France. When he began the siege of Calais at the end of the summer of 1346, the king was strong on the victory won with brilliance at Crécy, a few days earlier, over the French armies. Deprived of its source of supply by sea, then of the support of the armies of Philippe VI expected in the spring of 1347, Calais sinks into famine and despair; on August 3, Captain Jean de Vienne negotiated the surrender. Froissart delivered the brutal response of the English sovereign: "[…] The greatest grace [that the people of Calais] can find in me is that six of the most notable bourgeois […] leave the city. Of these, I will do at my will, I will have mercy on the rest. Six volunteer citizens sacrifice themselves for the rest of the inhabitants. Edward III will end up pardoning them, however, at the prayers of his wife Philippa de Hainaut.

The municipality wishes to commemorate the event by highlighting these six heroes, symbols of Calais pride. The group was officially inaugurated on June 3, 1895 in front of the Town Hall, in the presence of the artist.

Image Analysis

A procession in motion

The bourgeoisie stand up, without physical contact, but individualized by a specific gesture to each. They correspond to the description of Froissart's Chronicles, "bare head, without breeches, noose around the neck, the keys to the city and the castle in their hands", that is to say in the dishonorable attire of the condemned. In the first row, the old man with a venerable and resigned appearance represents Eustache de Saint-Pierre; his central position is an allusion to his status as leader of the group. On the right, Jean d'Aire holds firmly in his hands the keys to the city which must be given to Edward III. On the left, Pierre de Wissant encourages Jacques de Fiennes with a wave of his hand, who seems to hesitate behind him. Beside, Jacques de Wissant, Pierre's brother, walks vacantly, while Andrieus d'Andres gives in to despair, holding his head in his hands.

These six characters embody the variety of human reactions to an announced death. In addition, Rodin brings an innovation in the genre of the commemorative monument by breaking with the traditional pyramidal composition, which responded to the feeling of exaltation specific to the official celebration. Conversely, the sculptor places all the characters on the same level, like a procession in motion. By not favoring any character, it forces the viewer to turn around the monument to appreciate all the angles and all the nuances. This choice responds to Rodin's conception of sculpture, who strongly criticized works made to be seen from a unique angle.


An innovative treatment

It was up to Rodin to highlight the heroism of the six bourgeois. However, the innovative treatment he is proposing leads to disagreement with the committee. The model presented in July 1885 does indeed raise reservations. Because this type of monument does not cover a simple aesthetic issue; he questions the political place of the hero at a time, that of the years 1880-1914, when commemorative statues flourished in public space, particularly within communities which, like Calais, highlight the identifying figures of their history. Calais intended to celebrate through this group the sacrificial act of men offering their lives to save those of their fellow citizens. But Rodin's rejection of aesthetic conventions disrupts the committee. Why have you favored a rectangle arrangement, which deprives the monument of its glorifying dimension by not highlighting any of the characters? Worse, why have you insisted on the tunics and the ropes which transform these brave bourgeois into criminals?

Insensitive to the emotional charge deployed by each figure, the committee misses the revolutionary character of the group. But an event changed the situation: at the beginning of 1886, the bank which held the proceeds of the subscription collected for the raising of the group went bankrupt; the committee loses its financial leverage on the sculptor. Freed from all constraints, Rodin can continue his work, and the group is finally executed according to his will. A final discussion arises on the advisability of placing the group on a pedestal. For Rodin, the choice of a pedestal should allow the bourgeoisie to emerge from the sky, provided they are very high up and installed in an open place. The median solution adopted by the municipality - a low base surrounded by a grid - does not satisfy the sculptor, who will end up preferring the total absence of a base. As he wrote to Omer Dewavrin on December 8, 1893, “I had thought that placed very low the group became more familiar and brought the audience better into the aspect of misery and sacrifice, of drama. Without a pedestal, the bourgeoisie of the Middle Ages saw themselves fully integrated into the contemporary civic community. It is this presentation that Rodin will impose for the copy of the group installed in London in 1911, and that the Rodin Museum will respect by erecting another copy of the work in its gardens.

  • Nord Pas de Calais
  • Rodin (Auguste)
  • bourgeois
  • monuments
  • London


Jean FROISSART, "Chronicles, 2, 1342-1356: the bourgeois of Calais », Paleo, Clermont-Ferrand, 2003

Antoinette LE NORMAND-ROMAIN and Annette HAUDIQUET, "Rodin. The bourgeois of Calais », Editions of the Rodin museum, Paris, 2001

Dominique JARASSE, "Rodin", Terrail, Paris, 2006

Antoinette LE NORMAND-ROMAIN, "Rodin", Citadelles & Mazenod, Paris, 2013

To cite this article

Emilie FORMOSO, "The Bourgeois of Calais"


Video: LOCKTENDER The Burghers of Calais