1. Literal description - Compact group of six figures, all men, on a raised platform. Figures are nearly life-size; if anything, slightly smaller than life-size. Black bronze. Raised platform about 2 1/2 feet high.
2. Situation - Bronze is situated in an open grass park, at the junction of four walkways, as the middle-distance focus for the riverside park itself.
3. Structural composition - The structure is directed as a solution to a problem raised by the theme of the sculpture, rather than to merely (or only) sculptural problems, such as mass, etc. The thematic problem (to discuss below in detail) is, briefly, that of how to unify into a group composition, six figures that are privately introspective.
The basic geometric structure of the composition is of a compact rectangle. The heads of the six figures are at a level; all the hands that are raised are uniformly raised to the head level: this creates the top horizontal. The end figures, as all the figures, are strongly vertical, with nearly none of the vertical lines broken by diagonals. These verticals are reinforced by the drapery - mostly robes - which hang straight down unmoved by wind or any other interruptions. At the base, all the feet are at the same level and share a common base stand on top of the concrete base of the sculpture.
The figures are closely placed, which draws together the rectangular figure-composition. Three inside figures are in physical contact, which, together with the broad mass of the robes, provides density to the rectangular form - it is thus basically a solid geometrical figure rather than an open figure.
Thus, the unity of the composition is provided sculpturally by relating the figures into a single, compact, solid geometrical form.
4. Definition of mass - The effect of gravity is strongly emphasized. The bottom of the composition is more closed, by the robes and by the disproportional form of the hands and feet, than the top, which is somewhat opened by the spaces between heads. Most of the standing men have a form like this
(Click image to enlarge)
where the wider, deeper base fully indicates the downward pull of gravity (and all this has obvious thematic importance).
The statement about inertia in the composition is quite complex, owing to the thematic statement the sculpture makes. The lower half of the bronze presents inertia as resistance to movement - the feet and robes of most of the figures seem immobile and rooted, an impression reinforced by the effect of the robes, which is to grow out of the base like tree trunks. The upper half of the sculpture, however, shows considerable motion, although it is individual movements of heads. The heads are at different angles, are small and spaced apart and with different axes, providing melodrama to the composition.
5. Definition of space - Space is presented only in terms of what exists inside the geometrical composition. There is little geometric reference to an external space - of course, this reinforces the theme of private preoccupation with private fates and public fate. The one instance where an exterior space might be sculpturally implied is in the raised arm gesture of one figure - but this gesture is transformed from an outward to inward direction by the curve of the fingers, which is inward toward the head of the figure. The space with which Rodin wants the viewer to be concerned is inside the figures - literally inside the geometrical from of the closed rectangle and inside the minds of the six men.
6. Surface technique - The surface is strong, deeply etched, casting deep shadows and providing an impressionistic play of light. There is considerable movement in the surface, and it is from this, rather than the sculptural form, that the composition derives its sense of motion as a whole, the sense that theme, as a group, are going somewhere. The source of light for this composition would be at any angle, since the interior of the composition is complex enough, with fragmented planes falling off the powerful verticals of the robes and upright stande of the men, for the light and shadow to retain their effect.
7. Thematic composition - In order to save their city, Calais, from further seige, the six burghers offered themselves to the English besiegers as hostages. The thematic composition unites private grief and private and individual preparations for death and fate, with a common or united resolution (sacrifice).
Rodin's form has been carefully calculated to reinforce the theme - the rectangular composition and massive base represent the common purpose; the individuality of facial grief and separation and openness of the top half emphasize the individuality of death. Death is personal and individual although the condition for it - the sacrifice - might be public.
Rodin's major problem is to prevent the piece from being melodramatic or propagandistic. He has done this - though barely - by the severity of introspection in the six figures and the individuality of the head-bust poses. He has avoided the impression of caricature that one sees in Bolshevik and western military poster progaganda depictions of common resolve and purpose - i.e., the phalanx of happy worker-soldiers / citizen-minutemen-soldiers going off to meet death battling the enemy. Thus Rodin has made this a masterpiece of art, embodying universal themes. (Indeed - why not simply get rid of the title and call it "Six Figures" or something?)