In 1884, when enthusiasm for the nationalist French novel was at its height, Rodin received a commission for a monument to commemorate the Burghers of Calais. The subject harked back to the Hundred Years’ War, which spanned the 14th and 15th centuries and pitted the kingdoms of France and England against each other. In 1347, King Edward III laid siege to the city of Calais in the North of France. In exchange for sparing its inhabitants, he demanded that the city’s six most illustrious citizens surrender to him, in order to be executed. With halters around their necks, the six burghers walked out to meet the English and handed over the keys to their defeated city. Jean d’Aire was one of them.
With his straining limbs, his fists clutching the cushion on which the keys of the city are laid, his head bent and his gaunt body visible through the sides of his shirt, Jean d’Aire cuts a poignant figure. As the statue evolved toward its final version, Rodin played down his original emphasis on the dejection of the humiliated dignitary and stressed the rugged dignity of the condemned man. This final cast can also be seen at the Museum on the steps of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion—this one is on loan from Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal. These two posthumous casts were made for the Dominion Gallery of Montreal at the request of the art dealer Max Stern and under the supervision of the Rodin Museum in Paris.