In 1884 the Municipal Council of the town of Calais proposed the erection of a monument to celebrate an act of heroism by its citizens during the Hundred Years War. Calais in 1347 had been besieged by the forces of the English king, Edward III, and after a long and bitter resistance was forced to capitulate. Edwards agreed to spare the city if six of the town's leading citizens would surrender the keys to the city and their lives into his hands. Dressed in sackcloth and wearing nooses around their necks, the six volunteers walked to the English camp and presented themselves to the king. At the intercession of Edward's queen the six hostages were spared.
Rodin was approached with the proposal in September 1884 by the mayor of Calais, M. Omer Dewavrin, and by November 1884 the artist had completed a maquette for the monument. Although the original plan was to represent only one of the burghers, Eustache de Saint Pierre, the eldest burgher and the first to volunteer, Rodin's maquette showed all six burghers. And, rather than portraying the burghers as they confronted the English king, as was customary in earlier depictions of this episode, Rodin chose the moment when they are just setting out to walk to the English camp.
Later he told Paul Gsell:
I have not shown them grouped in a triumphant apotheosis, such a glorification of their heroism would not have corresponded to anything real. On the contrary, I have, as it were, threaded them one behind the other, because in the indecision of that last inner combat which ensues between their cause and their fear of dying, each of them is isolated in front of his conscience. They are still questioning themselves to know if they have the strength to accomplish the supreme sacrifice — their soul pushes them onward, but their feet refuse to walk. They drag themselves along painfully, as much because of the feebleness to which famine has reduced them as because of the terrifying nature of the sacrifice … If I have succeeded in showing how much the body, weakened by the most cruel sufferings, still holds on to life, how much power it still has over the spirit that is consumed with bravery, I congratulate myself on not having remained beneath the noble theme I have dealt with.1
The maquette was presented to the committee in January 1885, together with submissions by sculptors Emile François Chatrousse (1829-96) and Laurent-Honoré Marqueste (1848-1920). On 20 January Rodin was notified that he had been selected by the committee and on the 28th a contract was signed between the two parties.
The initial maquette for The burghers of Calais was first cast in bronze in 1970. The example in the Australian National Gallery's collection is the ninth of an edition of twelve and was cast by the Goddard Foundry, Paris, in 1974. A variant which includes the pedestal also exists in an edition of twelve bronze casts. The maquette in the Gallery's collection does not include the block-like pedestal that supported the figures when first presented to the Calais committee. This tall base was not developed further however, and was superseded by the more radical idea of placing the figures directly on the ground. Rodin elaborated this startlingly original notion to Paul Gsell:
I did not want a pedestal for these figures. I wanted them to be placed on, even affixed to, the paving stones of the square in front of the town hall in Calais so that it looked as if they were leaving in order to go to the enemy camp. In this way they would have been, as it were, mixed with the daily life of the town: passersby would have elbowed them, and they would have felt through this contact the emotion of the living past in their midst; they would have said to themselves: 'Our ancestors are our neighbours and our models, and the day when it will be granted to us to imitate their example, we would show that we have not degenerated from it ' … But the commissioning body understood nothing of the desires I expressed. They thought I was mad … Statues without a pedestal! Where had that ever been seen before? there must be a pedestal; there was no way of getting around it.2
Ultimately the Burghers were positioned, against Rodin's recommendation, on a pedestal of medium height designed by one of the members of the committee when the monument was finally inaugurated in 1895.
After the initial maquette for The burghers of Calais had been accepted by the committee Rodin began a second maquette, consisting of individual figures, which was displayed in Calais in August 1885. By then he had already started work on nude studies that exist for at least four of the six figures in the monument. In a letter of 14 July 1885 Rodin indicated that preliminary work on the nude studies was complete and that they were ready for enlargement: 'My nudes are done, that is to say the lower layer, and I am going to have them executed definitively, so as not to lose time. You see it is the part that is not seen that is the most important, and it is finished'.3 The Australian National Gallery has two life-size casts of the nude studies, Nude study for Jean d'Aire c.1885-86, and Nude study for Jean de Fiennes c.1885-86.
In the account of the surrender of Calais given in the Chronicles of the fourteenth-century historian Jean Froissart, Jean d'Aire is nominated as the second of the burghers to have offered himself as a hostage: 'Then another greatly respected and wealthy citizen, who had two beautiful daughters, stood up and said that he would go with his friend, master Eustache de St Pierre'.4 In each of the maquettes and in the final monument, Jean d'Aire is appropriately placed beside Eustache de Saint Pierre — to his left in the first and second maquettes, and to his right in the final arrangement.
Although the posture of the nude study for Jean d'Aire is similar to the figure in the second maquette that preceded it, a number of small changes exist and are carried over to the final monument. The position of the legs, once advancing one in front of the other, are here spread apart and immobile. The head, once drooping, is here raised, conveying, with the new disposition of the legs, a sense of steadfastness, even defiance. In making these changes Rodin may have been responding to criticisms of the second maquette by the committee, who remarked that the burghers' 'defeated postures offend our religious feelings'.5
The Nude study for Jean d'Aire in the Gallery's collection is the third in an edition of twelve and was cast by the Georges Rudier Foundry, Paris, in 1973 from the plaster in the Musée Rodin, Paris. In addition to the life-size nude study, a later reduced version measuring 105 cm in height exists in a similar edition.
Jean de Fiennes was not identified in Jean Froissart's Chronicles and his name only came to light in 1863 when Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove published a manuscript found in the Vatican library naming Jean de Fiennes and Andrieu d'Andres as the two unknown burghers.6 The pose of Jean de Fiennes is little changed from the open-armed, slightly turning attitude established in the second maquette, and is carried through to the final figure with only small refinements. The Nude study of Jean de Fiennes in the Gallery's collection is the first in an edition of twelve and was cast by the Georges Rudier Foundry, Paris, in 1974 from the plaster in the Musée Rodin, Paris.
In June 1886 Rodin received further funds from the committee for the development of individual figures for the monument. Edmond de Goncourt, in his journal, reported having seen 'life-size clay studies for the six hostages of Calais' during a visit to Rodin's studio on the afternoon of 17 April 1886.7 Three of the completed figures in plaster were exhibited at the George Petit Gallery in Paris in 1887; two more were exhibited there in 1888, and finally all six were shown in 1889 at the exhibition held jointly with Claude Monet (1840-1926).
The Australian National Gallery has casts of four of the six figures intended for the final monument, Eustache de Saint Pierre, Jean d'Aire, Pierre de Wiessant and Andrieu d'Andres.
In the first maquette of 1884, Eustache de Saint Pierre occupies a prominent position, carrying the keys to the city and pointing dramatically to the English camp. In the second maquette he is still in the front rank of burghers, but here he stoops under the burden of his decision, his arms drooping by his sides. Reviewing the second maquette, the committee particularly objected to 'the despondency shown by Eustache de Saint Pierre'.8 Rodin replied that at best he would be prepared to alter 'the one who is in despair' (Andrieu d'Andres), but not Eustache de Saint Pierre, who 'is the first to descend and for my lines he needs to be like this'.9
For the following studies of Eustache de Saint Pierre Rodin used several models. his friend Jean-Charles Cazin posed for the first nude study of 1886; for a second, made in 1886-87, he probably used Pignatelli, the Italian model he had used for his John the Baptist preaching 1878. Eustache de Saint Pierre in the Gallery's collection is the first of four casts reserved for museums from an edition of twelve and was cast by the Courbertin Foundry, Paris, in 1984 from the plaster in the Musée Rodin, Paris. A reduction of this figure, measuring 47.0 cm (18½"), exists, as does an edition of the head.
In the final version of Jean d'Aire, Rodin has placed a massive single key in the hands of the figure, replacing the pillow supporting a number of smaller keys that appeared in the second maquette. The figure of Jean d'Aire in the Gallery's collection is the seventh in an edition of twelve and was cast by the Susse Foundry, Paris, in 1974, from the plaster in the Musée Rodin, Paris.
In his Chronicle, Jean Froissart describes Pierre de Wiessant simply as the brother of Jaques de Wiessant, owner of a rich country estate and the fourth burgher to volunteer. In the first maquette of 1884, Rodin has already given him his final gesture, the raised arm. In the second maquette the gesture is refined, and retained in the subsequent nude studies and in the final figure for the monument. One of the nude studies for Pierre di Wiessant, a partial figure missing head and hands, provides interesting evidence of Rodin's method of adding and removing parts. The right hand used for Pierre de Wiessant is also used for Jaques de Wiessant and the same features are used in the heads of Jean d'Aire, Andrieu de Andres and Jaques de Wiessant. The head of Pierre de Wiessant is thought to have been modelled on the features of Coquelin Cadet, a popular comedian of the time. Pierre de Wiessant in the Gallery's collection is the first in an edition of twelve and was cast by the Susse Foundry, Paris, in 1974. A reduction of this figure was cast and issued in an edition of twelve in 1890. A cast of the head of Pierre de Wiessant was separately issued at much the same time. By 1908 a monumental head was also editioned.
Like Jean de Fiennes, the name of Andrieu d'Andres is not mentioned by Jean Froissart in his Chronicle, but was also uncovered in 1863 by Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove. the first maquette shows Andrieu de Andres already clutching his head in despair, the pose that was singled out for criticism when it reappeared in the second maquette. As with the figures of Jean d'Aire and Jaques de Wiessant, the head of this figure appears to be modelled on Rodin's son Auguste Beuret. The figure of Andrieu d'Andres in the Gallery's collection is the first of four casts reserved for museums from an edition of twelve cast by the Courbertin Foundry, Paris, in 1985 from the plaster in the Musée Rodin, Paris. A reduction of the figure was made in about 1890 and also exists in an edition of twelve.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.58.