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Les Bourgeois de Calais is one of the most famous sculptures by Auguste Rodin. It commemorates an occurrence during the Hundred Years' War, when Calais, an important French port on the English Channel, was under siege by the English for over a year. Calais commissioned Rodin to create the sculpture in 1884, and the work was completed in 1889.
England's Edward III, after a victory in the Battle of Crécy, laid siege to Calais, while Philip VI of France ordered the city to hold out at all costs. Philip failed to lift the siege, and starvation eventually forced the city to parley for surrender.
According to medieval writer Jean Froissart, Edward offered to spare the people of the city if six of its top leaders would surrender themselves to him, presumably to be executed. Edward demanded that they walk out wearing nooses around their necks, and carrying the keys to the city and castle. One of the wealthiest of the town leaders, Eustache de Saint Pierre, volunteered first, and five other burghers joined with him. Saint Pierre led this envoy of volunteers to the city gates. It was this moment, and this poignant mix of defeat, heroic self-sacrifice, and willingness to face imminent death that Rodin captured in his sculpture, scaled somewhat larger than life.
Although the burghers expected to be executed, their lives were spared by the intervention of England's queen, Philippa of Hainault, who persuaded her husband to exercise mercy by claiming that their deaths would be a bad omen for her unborn child. (Her son, Thomas of Windsor, only lived for one year.)
Although his contemporaries criticized his style and his choice of animal subjects, Barye is today esteemed as the founder of the Parisian animaliers.
He worked at a time of widespread public hope that the ruling government could be made liberal and responsive to its citizens. His choice of bronze over marble and his use of animals as symbols for human emotions were both considered radical.
The political symbolism of the lion of monarchy crushing the evil serpent was applauded by Louis Philippe, who made Barye a knight of the Legion of Honor in 1833. Later Barye was appointed professor of zoological drawing at the Museum of Natural History, where Auguste Rodin studied with him.
F. Barbedienne, whose foundry cast the Lion, interested Thomas Hockley, chairman of the Fairmount Park Art Association’s (now the Association for Public Art) Committee of Works of Art, in the sculpture. Hockley circulated subscription books in 1885, and six years later payment was made for a cast of the work, which was the first sculpture installed in Rittenhouse Square.