Rodin’s ‘Burghers’ back in lustrous misery

This is how the Rodin Museum got its “Burghers” back.

Using a construction crane, a few wooden blocks, and a lot of teamwork, conservators and crew at the Rodin Museum on the Parkway in Philadelphia slowly lowered the 6,000-pound statue onto its concrete platform.


This is where “The Burghers of Calais” was originally set, when the Rodin Museum opened in 1929. After 25 years of exposure to the stresses of its urban environment, the statue’s cast bronze was being eaten by pollution and acid rain.

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By the time the six doomed figures of the statue were moved inside in the 1950s, they were marred by streaks of corrosion.

Conservators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which owns the Rodin Museum, used lasers to clean the corrosive accretion, and applied a new patina surface.

“A patina was built using chemicals and heat that has a polychromatic effect, so that it doesn’t look like a green army man, or a chocolate casting,” said conservator Kate Cuffari. “It looks like a sculpture. There are greens and browns in multiple layers.”

Rodin rendered “The Burghers of Calais” as a melancholy bunch, sentenced to their collective death by the 14th century King Edward III. At the eleventh hour, as the story goes, the queen spared their lives on a superstitious whim.

In Rodin’s bleak vision, the burghers are on a miserable death march, wearing tattered sackcloth with rope tied around their necks. The weathering of the statue made them seem even more miserable, with black and brown tears streaming down the folds of the cloth.

The intentions of the artist had been lost under layers of corrosion: the subtle folds of cloth with roughly hacked edging, the powerful hands and feet carved with sinewy veins, have not been seen in more than 50 years.

“The streaks were so great, the erosion streaks, that it was pretty hard to read and to articulate the movement,” said museum curator Joseph Rishel. “They are all wearing some sort of hide, this very primeval, back-to-Stonehenge stuff.”

The reappointment of the statue in the Rodin Museum’s east garden is the last step of the museum’s overall renovation. Conservators say the statue’s new patina should be able to withstand the urban environment for 15 years before needing serious maintenance again.

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