Rodin began the project in 1884, inspired by the chronicles of the siege by Jean Froissart. Though the town envisioned an allegorical, heroic piece centered on Eustache de Saint-Pierre, the eldest of the six men, Rodin conceived the sculpture as a study in the varied and complex emotions under which all six men were laboring. One year into the commission, the Calais committee was not impressed with Rodin's progress. Rodin indicated his willingness to end the project rather than change his design to meet the committee's conservative expectations, but Calais said to continue.
In 1889, The Burghers of Calais was first displayed to general acclaim. It is a bronze sculpture weighing two tons (1814 kg), and its figures are 2 metres tall. The six men portrayed do not display a united, heroic front; rather, each is isolated from his brothers, individually deliberating and struggling with his expected fate. Rodin soon proposed that the monument's high pedestal be eliminated, wanting to move the sculpture to ground level so that viewers could "penetrate to the heart of the subject". At ground level, the figures' positions lead the viewer around the work, and subtly suggest their common movement forward. The committee was incensed by the untraditional proposal, but Rodin would not yield. In 1895, Calais succeeded in having Burghers displayed in their preferred form: the work was placed in front of a public garden on a high platform, surrounded by a cast-iron railing. Rodin had wanted it located near the town hall, where it would engage the public. Only after damage during the First World War, subsequent storage, and Rodin's death was the sculpture displayed as he had intended. It is one of Rodin's most well-known and acclaimed works.