Guest Blogger: Mari
In 1347, during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, the French port town of Calais was attacked by the English King Edward III. After a year under siege, the town was forced to surrender due to famine. King Edward III declared that he would only accept the town’s surrender if six of the city leaders came to him carrying the keys to the city and castle with bare feet and nooses around their necks. Eustache de Saint Pierre volunteered to sacrifice himself for the good of the city and was followed by five other members of the city’s aristocracy. They went to King Edward III as he had commanded and expected to die. The king, however, was persuaded to spare them at the last minute by his pregnant wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, who claimed the death of the men would be an ill omen for her unborn child. To this day, France and the city of Calais honor the six burghers as heroes.
In 1884, the city of Calais held a contest to select a French artist to make a sculpture honoring Eustache de Saint Pierre and his service to the city. Auguste Rodin won this contest and created The Burghers of Calais. Rather than simply depicting Eustache de Saint Pierre, he chose to create all six burghers because he believed all of the men, not just Saint Pierre, had acted bravely. Each man’s face represents one emotion that must have been coursing through the men back in 1347, such as despair, courage, resignation, and uncertainty. The men wear ragged tunics, have bare feet, and stand with nooses tied around their necks. Instead of displaying the glory of the burghers, Rodin chose to display the anguish they must have felt, humanizing them and making their sacrifice that much more significant. The Burghers of Calais breaks the mold of typical late 19th century sculpture; the piece has no allegorical figures and lacks a pyramidal arrangement. Instead, the men appear average and stand on level with the viewer. In addition, each man faces a different direction, obligating the viewer to walk around the entire piece to truly understand it. This makes their sacrifice more real and tangible; it forces the viewer to fully realize that these men were willing to pay the ultimate price to save their people.
The copy of The Burghers of Calais that is in Washington D.C. is one of only twelve copies ever made in accordance with French law. It was cast in 1943, 54 years after the original piece was completed. Purchased by Joseph H. Hirshhorn, it originally decorated a traffic circle at his estate in Greenwich, Connecticut. Hirshhorn, a Latvian immigrant, was an avid art collector who made millions on Wall Street and in the uranium trade in Canada. After retiring, he dedicated his life to collecting art, most of which was created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1970’s, Joseph H. Hirshhorn donated The Burghers of Calais, along with other pieces from his vast art collection, to the newly built Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in D.C. Today, the piece can still be seen in the sculpture garden surrounded by other copies of Rodin’s work.