Camille Claudel


As one of the first women on the arts scene of belle epoch Paris, Camille Claudel made quite an impression when she arrived at Auguste Rodin's studio at the age of 19 to work as his assistant. Rodin was quickly drawn to her – and her evident talent – and before long, she was his model, lover, inspiration and artistic equal.

Camille Claudel in her workshop (before 1930)
Rodin introduced her to all the famous figures in Paris; she, for her part, helped change the course of his work. In sculptures such as The Waltz and The Wave, she sought to capture a fleeting moment in motion, or the ephemeral moment "just gone". Contrary to the assumption of the 19th-century's academy (who thought she was imitating Rodin's work) Claudel's presence in Rodin's studio cast an important influence over his work, rather than the other way around.

By focusing on figurative sculpture – sometimes nude – Claudel attracted public outrage. Griselda Pollock, professor of social and critical histories of art at Leeds University, confirms that Claudel was "a major force in the experimental and transformative partnership that occurred artistically in Rodin's studio"; yet her work was subject to gendered censorship.

Rodin circa 1862.
For instance, to get a clay maquette made in bronze you needed the funding and the approval of the official Institut. When the inspectors visited Claudel's studio, they refused to give her permission to cast The Waltz because it showed two nude bodies in close proximity. The very idea was not acceptable from a woman's hand, whereas from Rodin's hand, work influenced by Claudel's daring, became acceptable as men are allowed to know about sexual desire and the body.

Bust of Rodin (1892)

In 1888 Claudel moved out of her parents' house and rented a small apartment in Paris. Shortly after, Rodin purchased a house nearby known as La Folie-Neufbourg. Here the lovers were said to have occasionally lived together, while Beuret remained at Rodin's primary residence. During this time, Rodin sculpted several portraits of Claudel, and Claudel sculpted her Bust of Rodin (1892), the artist's favorite portrait of himself. Claudel also began working on her minor masterpiece The Waltz (begun 1891), which depicts a couple entwined in a dance.

The affair with Rodin both made her and destroyed her. Rodin, already in a committed relationship and 25 years her senior, was not prepared to leave his long-term partner, Rose Beuret, though he promised her that he would.

Camille Claudel, The Waltz, 1895
While Rodin's infidelities are well-documented, less is known of affairs Claudel may have had with other men. Some historians believe she had a brief romance with the composer Claude Debussy in or around 1890. Whatever passion may have existed between them was over by early 1891, however, when they ceased seeing each other. Debussy was said to have kept a small cast of The Waltz on his piano until his death.

Immediately following the breakup, Claudel was perhaps her most productive, completing some of her most original and mature works, including L'Age Mur (1898), an autobiographical sculpture depicting a love triangle, and La Vague (1900), with three female figures bathing under an enormous wave. The latter work was indicative of a new style for Claudel, who now used onyx, a rare material, and based her compositions on an eloquent play of curves. She composed large works as well as sculptures of a more intimate scale, making quick sketches of people in the streets of Paris and returning home to sculpt them. Unfortunately, these small figures do not survive; she destroyed them all.

L'Age Mur (1898)

The destructive aftermath of the affair consumed her to such a degree that she threw away much of her work and was admitted to an asylum, where she lived for 30 years.

Gradually, Claudel began to feel persecuted. She even accused Rodin of plotting against her.

What made her public profile all the more contentious was her unmarried status. Alone as a woman of her class, not married to the man with whom she had a sexual relation, perhaps deeply distraught by the loss of love and undergoing major changes in her life cycle, while she watched her own sculptural ideas make Rodin the lionized figure of French sculptures, she may well have had some kind of psychological breakdown.

While her artistic career had its highlights, she never managed to earn enough money to be fully independent and, at times, Rodin paid the rent on her studio. Claudel came from a rich family and her father, having spotted her talent, supported her sculpting, but after he died, her diplomat brother and mother – more suspicious of her lifestyle – held the purse strings. It was after her father had died that she found herself on the streets of Paris, dressed in beggar's clothes. Now at her most vulnerable, her brother admitted her to a lunatic asylum.

For the remaining 30 years of her life, Claudel languished in an insane asylum, transferring once to a facility in Montdevergues, near Avignon. Her life as a sculptor was over, although she wrote letters begging her brother and mother to release her and let her return to the artist's life. When Claudel's doctors tried to interest her in sculpting and presented her with clay, she angrily rejected it. Diagnosed as suffering from a persecution complex, she remained deeply paranoid of Rodin, and blamed him for her troubles.

Whether or not Claudel was truly insane and needed to stay in an asylum remains unclear. She wrote lucid letters to her family and friends, and even her doctors recommended that she be released on at least two occasions. But her brother was often abroad, and her mother would not allow her release, claiming that she was too old to care for her daughter. Brazilian-French actress and writer, Gaël believes she languished here for decades for being a woman who was "ahead of her time".

Sources: The Independent 
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