“I do not know, in any art, of an evocation of souls so spendidly compelling,” the critic Octave Mirbeau declared in 1889, when Rodin first exhibited Les bourgeois de Calais (quoted in J.L. Tancock, op. cit., 1976, p. 388). The project was his earliest commission for a free-standing, public monument and one of the defining projects of his career. Comprised of six individual figures set on integral bases, the group commemorates the heroism of six citizens of Calais who in 1347, during the Hundred Years’ War, volunteered to surrender themselves to King Edward III of England in exchange for the liberation of their city, which had been besieged for nearly a year. In a radical departure from traditional heroic monuments, Rodin eschewed all allegorical trappings; he instead depicted the moment that the burghers, clad in sackcloth and nooses as King Edward III had demanded, began their painful leave with their suffering agonizingly real.
”I did not group them together in a triumphant apotheosis, for such a glorification of their heroism would not in any way have corresponded to reality,” Rodin explained. “On the contrary, I strung them out one behind the other, because, with the uncertain outcome of the final inner struggle being waged between their devotion to their city and their fear of dying, it is as if each of them has to face their conscience alone. They are still wondering if they will have the strength to make the supreme sacrifice. Their hearts urge them forward and their feet refuse to walk. They drag themselves along with difficulty, due as much to the weakness to which famine has reduced them as to their dread of their execution. And indeed, if I have succeeded in showing how the body, even when exhausted by the cruelest suffering, still clings to life, how it still holds sway over the soul enamored of bravery, I can only congratulate myself for being equal to the noble theme that I had to treat” (quoted in A. Le Normand-Romain, op. cit., 2007, p. 213).
The maquette for this project was delivered to the mayor of Calais in July 1885 and the finished monument inaugurated the town square ten years later, after which Rodin continued to make use of the powerfully expressive statues, producing new bronze casts of individual figures and heads for eager collectors. The present lot features Pierre de Wiessant, one of the six burghers, who joined the group along with his older brother, Jacques de Wiessant. His contorted, nearly contrapposto pose demonstrates his momentary indecision to join the others. “The monument swiftly moved beyond the context of local history to take its place alongside the great works of sculpture,” Le Normand-Romain has written. “By rejecting the descriptive style of conventional public monuments in order to portray what real people felt...Rodin had created one of the masterpieces of a period that focused on man and his inner world” (ibid., p. 214).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).