Monumental Head of Pierre de Wissant 1
The North Carolina Museum of Art has a large display of sculptures of French artist Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). This is my favorite. When I was there, the late afternoon sun coming in made every photo almost impossible. Neither the color nor the black and white convey the full impact of this masterful depiction of anguish. I never realized how much emotion can be conveyed in bronze. This viewing experience has enhanced appreciation of sculpture in general and of Rodin in specific.
Edward III, King of England, claimed authority over France at that time. In 1346 he began an 11-month siege of the port city of Calais in an early battle in the Hundred Years’ War. Unable to take the city by attack, Edward decided to starve the city into submission. His plan succeeded. He would spare the lives of the citizens of Calais if six of its prominent leaders would come to his encampment; they would be barefoot and without headwear, nooses around their neck, and hand over the keys to the city and beg for mercy. Six burghers ultimately volunteered in this act of selfless heroism. They expected to be executed but were saved through the intervention of England’s pregnant queen, Philippa of Hainault. She feared the killing of the burghers would be a bad omen for the birth of her child. Pierre de Wissant is one of those six burghers.
To honor this act of self-sacrifice, the city of Calais commissioned Rodin in 1885 to execute a monument. His finished work was The Burghers of Calais (Les Bourgeois de Calais). Rodin used the head of Pierre de Wissant alone in a larger-than life sculpture. The modeling of the head was done in 1884-1885 and enlarged in 1909. The figure in the North Carolina Museum of Art was cast in 1980 by the Musée Rodin.
The bust shows Pierre de Wissant with parted lips, eyes nearly shut, head leaning slightly to the side, and an elongated neck—all features contributing to the pathos of the situation of self-denial and sacrifice. His features reveal the emaciation resulting from the effort to starve out the city. His decision shows in the facial agony to sacrifice his life for his fellow citizens. Rodin remarkably creates a human being in flesh and blood using only bronze.
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