In October 1884 Rodin was approached by Omer Dewavrin, mayor of Calais, who wished to secure a statue celebrating the heroism of the city’s inhabitants. The mayor chose as his subject the noble self-sacrifice of Eustache de St Pierre and his five companions who ended the siege of the city in 1347 by offering themselves as hostages to the English King Edward III. Rodin was drawn to the moment when the six men volunteered their lives stripped ‘to their shirts and breeches’. He began modelling each figure separately, intending to group the figures on one level rather than employ the traditional pyramidal format typically used for monuments. At first enthusiastic, the Committee in Calais began protesting that the expressions of the figures were too painful and despairing. Rodin ignored their advice and began modelling the figures in their final over-life size, first naked, and then draped. When the city’s banks collapsed in the depression of 1886 the project was delayed and the first bronze cast was only installed in 1895.
Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais, 1908. Bronze, 231 x 245 x 200 cm. Presented to the nation by The Art Fund, 1914. Restored and set on a new plinth in Victoria Tower Gardens through the generosity of Nicholas and Judith Goodison, 2004. Loaned by The Royal Parks. Photo The Royal Parks/Roy Fox.
Rodin had various ideas for the installation, each dependent on location. His initial idea for a cast purchased in 1911 by the new British organisation, the National Art Collections Fund, was to place it in Old Palace Yard, directly in front of the Houses of Parliament where the bronzes would be silhouetted against the sky. Politicians saw the monument as part of the policies of the Entente Cordiale. Rodin was not allowed this site and as a compromise the statue was placed nearby in Victoria Gardens on a lower plinth, unveiled quietly in the summer of 1915 while French and British soldiers were fighting the opening battles of the First World War.
Throughout the 1890s Rodin struggled to complete – both to his satisfaction and to that of the commissioning bodies – two monuments to great nineteenth century writers, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. He began by researching the subjects through evidence of their physical appearance, their writings and above all their psychological make-up, trying to give physical form to the quality of their genius. Rodin wanted to avoid making heroic figures in contemporary dress and in the end used one of the bodies from The Burghers of Calais for Balzac, encasing it in a plaster-soaked robe, concentrating most attention on the writer’s extraordinary head. Ridiculed by many, other artists recognised the modernity of Rodin’s work. Brancusi wrote: ‘Rodin’s attitude towards his art was a modest one. When he had finished his Balzac, which undoubtedly remains the point of departure of modern sculpture, he declared: “Now I should like to begin to work on it”.’