Genius Interrupted and Resurrected: Camille Claudel in Two Museums
Updated: Jan 17
“The events of my life would fill more than a novel. It would take an epic, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and a Homer to tell my story. I won't recount it today, I don't want to sadden you. I have fallen into an abyss. I live in a world so curious, so strange. Of the dream that was my life, this is the nightmare.”
-- Camille Claudel to Eugène Blot, Montdevergues Asylum, 1935
I've always loved the affecting sculptures of the tragic and gifted French sculptor Camille Claudel. I’ve seen her works in Paris' Rodin Museum and made the pilgrimage to the new Camille Claudel Museum in Nogent-sur-Seine, shortly after it opened in May 2017.
I cannot resist a tale of a talented ferocious woman, struggling for success in an art world that was then the exclusive domain of men. The story of her life, and how it ended, is devastating. Having just finished reading Rodin’s Lover, I was inspired to write about her.
So inspired, I've apparently written a tomb.
Camille Claudel: Genius and Force of Nature
Claudel was born in 1864 in Fere-en-Tardenois, in the champagne region of France. She began sculpting at age 12, showing prodigious talent. She would often dig up red clay around her house for material. Claudel was intense, moody, and tempestuous from a young age. She defiantly resisted the idea of courtship or marriage, wanting only to sculpt.
In her childhood, Claudel was only close to her brother Paul, who would go on to become a Christian mystic poet, acclaimed dramatist, and diplomat. Her unloving and puritanical mother couldn’t bear Camille’s wayward disposition or her unconventional “hobby.” She constantly rejected and vilified her daughter.
Claudel's intellectual and loving father was more sympathetic. Recognizing her innate talent, he sent his daughter to Paris to study at the Académie Colarossi at great expense. At the time, it was Paris’ only art school for women. Women were barred from free training at the state sponsored École des Beaux-Arts until 1897.
Early Career and Affair with Rodin
Claudel rented an atelier with British sculptor Jessica Lipscomb. She studied with sculptor Alfred Boucher. When Boucher left for Italy, he asked the the sculptor Auguste Rodin to take on Claudel as a student.
In 1884, at the age of 19, she became Rodin’s assistant. Rodin, then in his 40s, was living with the mother of his child and lifelong partner, Rose Beuret. He was just gaining serious recognition.
In 1886, Claudel and Rodin began a torrid affair. Their romantic and collaborative relationship would last, on and off, until 1898. For Rodin, this marked an incredibly prolific period. For Claudel, the relationship was both a blessing and a curse.
With Rodin’s help, Claudel's works received exposure and her early career was promising. She learned to sculpt different types of stone and had live nude models, something essential for training. She was given the studio jobs that required the most skill, like creating the hands and feet for Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais and The Gates of Hell.
Claudel was initially influenced by Rodin, but quickly established her own innovative style. Her work had a more passionate, vulnerable, expressionistic quality than Rodin’s monumental, more heroic, pieces. They often had more finesse and detail. As Rodin said, “I showed her where to find gold, but the gold she finds belongs to her.”
Claudel exhibited at the Salon and had several private commissions. She was recognized as gifted “for a woman.”
Her first major piece, Shakuntala, won Honorable Mention at the Salon in 1888, even besting Rodin that year. There are several variations of the piece, as Claudel often worked obsessively on the same subject matter. This is not uncommon for artists. Think Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, or Lucien Freud.
Contrary to then prevailing wisdom, Claudel also influenced Rodin’s work. She was a prodigy -- highly sensitive, intense, and imaginative.
Rodin was desperately in love with Claudel, who he described as his "ferocious friend." With Claudel, unlike Beuret, he experienced "great joy" and “the happiness of always being understood." She was his inspiration. They had a "deep complicity of spirit."
Rodin’s works from this time are among his most lyrical and beautiful, including The Kiss (created while Claudel worked on Shakuntale) and Eternal Idol. To my mind, Shakuntale is a more nuanced piece and more evocative than The Kiss.
Often, Rodin and Claudel worked side by side, in symbiotic fashion. You might say the two sculptors wed through the creative process.
Some of Rodin’s sculptures indicate that they were created by two sets of hands, not just his. Claudel's talent was poured into Rodin's marble castes. It's likely that Rodin signed some of Claudel's work and left Claudel as an uncredited co-creator. At the time, this type of appropriation was not an unusual teacher-pupil practice. But it would have irked Claudel tremendously and perhaps was a source of her later anti-Rodin venom.
Gender Discrimination and The End of the Affair
Claudel was also stymied by the uber-masculine art world and gender based censorship. Most critics (all men of course) believed that women were incapable of genius or of producing great art. They repeatedly labeled Claudel’s figurative work as derivative of Rodin, to Claudel’s fury.
Critics also disapproved of Claudel’s explicit subject matters. Claudel not only sculpted nude couples, but nude couples that exuded lust or were in erotic poses. Her sculptures were deemed “inappropriate” for a woman.
Apparently, only men could experience and sculpt sexual desire in those days. Claudel lamented, “I would prefer to have a more appealing job. This unfortunate art is made for long beards and ugly faces rather than for a relatively well-endowed woman.”
Her affair with Rodin also caused Claudel tremendous pain. There was never a marriage, despite Rodin signing a "contract" in 1886. And there was possibly an abortion or two. Biographers are uncertain, but Claudel may have given birth twice. She was traveling abroad frequently with Rodin on geographical cures, and could have given birth then. Claudel was certainly fascinated by children and sculpted them often.
Claudel’s mother even disowned her over her “immoral” affair and banned Claudel from her childhood home. In 1893, at 28, Claudel issued an ultimatum to a stonewalling Rodin. He reluctantly refused to abandon Beuret. Claudel broke off the affair and discontinued working for Rodin.
Claudel rented her own studio on the Isle Saint-Louis. She dedicated herself to her own career, trying to escape the protégée label and be seen as an artist in her own right. She knew she was as talented as Rodin. Rodin apparently helped support her and sent her some commissions.
Claudel was productive for some time. She experimented with new and difficult materials, like onyx. She used daring compositions and created smaller intimate pieces. Claudel produced some of her best work — The Waltz, Clotho, The Mature Age, The Gossipers, and the Wave. She received a few commissions and placed some pieces in museums.
The Waltz and Clotho were exhibited at the 1893 Salon.
I especially loveThe Waltz. It's is a masterful joyous piece, an off kilter swirl of motion and emotion, capturing an amorous moment. During its creation, Claudel may have had a brief affair with the musician Claude Debussy. He kept a small bronze casting of The Waltz on his desk for the rest of his life.
Deterioration and Commitment
After their breakup, Rodin’s career soared while Claudel experienced frustrating setbacks. She exhibited, but couldn’t get state funding. A commission to cast The Mature Age in bronze was approved, but then mysteriously revoked, perhaps due to Rodin’s interference because of the biographical subject matter. Some critics praised her work, but no one bought her sculptures.
In 1898, Claudel and Rodin permanently parted.
Ensconced in her studio, living like a recluse, Claudel feverishly made original narrative sculptures that bore no resemblance to Rodin’s work. After showing some sketches to her brother Paul, by then a fervent champion of the Catholic faith, Claudel said, "I'm greatly enjoying my work ... As you can see, it’s no longer anything like Rodin.”
But poverty and lack of financial success reached a breaking point. Mental illness and obsession, which may have been periodically in evidence, grew progressive and her condition deteriorated.
In her mind, she was rejected by Rodin, rejected by the art world, and rejected by her family. She was sidelined and betrayed. She grew paranoid, may have heard voices, and thought that Rodin or “Rodin’s Gang” was trying to steal her ideas and her work.
Claudel lived in isolation, squalor, and self-neglect, bitter and drinking to excess. She referred to Rodin as “the ferret.” Her neighbors complained about Claudel and her coterie of cats.
In 1906, Claudel seemed to lurch out of control. She destroyed her art work or threw it in the Seine so that Rodin could not plagiarize it. By 1910, she was no longer producing or exhibiting original work.
Claudel may have suffered from paranoid or delusional schizophrenia, severe depression, or alcoholism. Or a combination of problems. Alternatively, she may have just been an eccentric artist, saddened and frustrated by life, slipping into melancholia. Many artists live tortured lives. Or drink too much.
And this kind of eccentric and antisocial behavior by male artists had long been tolerated. Even Claudel's devout brother Paul exhibited eccentric tendencies and a temper. But the doughty Paul channeled them into religious fanaticism, a more socially acceptable kind of craziness.
While Paul collected honors right and left for his poetry, he did nothing to help his sister. Paul's feelings about Claudel seemed to oscillate between admiration and repulsion, but mostly repulsion over what he deemed her blasphemous affair with Rodin. Paul particularly hated The Mature Age, which he thought featured Claude "humiliated at her knees." Paul may also have been jealous of Claudel, once declaring "I am the only genius in the family."
That's some sick brotherly love.
Indeed, when Paul returned from a long diplomatic stint abroad, he was disapproving. He described Claudel as "insane, enormous, with a soiled face, speaking incessantly in a monotonous metallic voice." He was embarrassed by the unseemly and unwed Claudel. She had become a liability to the famous poet of an upstanding family.
And we all know what men of that era, particularly devout men, did with troublesome women. Get thee to a nunnery!
In 1913, Paul committed Claudel to a mental asylum at age 49, probably to their mother's delight. Claudel was transferred the following year to a church run psychiatric hospital in Montdevergues in southern France. Under an antiquated French “lunacy law,” all that was required for Claudel’s committment and sequestration was a doctor's certificate and the request of a family member.
Heartbreakingly, Claudel's commitment brought her sculpting career to a brutal end. She refused all art materials offered. She said, “I am in no mood to be deceived any longer by the crafty devil and false character whose greatest pleasure is to take advantage of everyone.”
But Claudel settled down quickly at the asylum and detoxed. On several occasions, the hospital told her family that Claudel had improved, was calm and sane, and could be released. The news fell on deaf ears.
Claudel's steely family were fanatical jailers. They deserted her, rarely visited, and didn't write. They ignored Claudel's poignant letters complaining of isolation and pleading for her freedom from the "screams" of the "madhouse." It must have suited them to leave her there. Claudel said, “It is terrible to be so abandoned.”
A terrible family, indeed. In their Catholic fervor, they left her to a living death. They likely deemed Claudel's enforced commitment necessary to avoid a family scandal. Or perhaps they considered it a fit "punishment" for Claudel daring to break the rules of bourgeoise society. She should have known her place.
Claudel died, alone, at age 78, after 30 years of wasted talent and imprisonment in the asylum. She was buried in an anonymous public grave.
Camille Claudel Analyzed
It is difficult to identify the real culprit or villain in this drama.
Claudel's judgmental family is a clear villain. Their lack of support and her commitment were monstrous. Her own family smugly cast her off. They effectively destroyed her gift when they might have rescued it.
What of Rodin? Did he truly help her career? Or did Claudel rightfully feel that he took advantage of her genius? During their time together, Rodin was incredibly prolific. In contrast, Claudel produced few pieces, churning out art under Rodin's name. It was her least productive period. Perhaps that was the inevitable outcome of an apprenticeship.
To me, Rodin doesn't seem like the proverbial villain or "monster." He certainly inspired keen resentment and became the object of Claudel's obsession. But not particularly because of the lost romance. Claudel disavowed him. And Rodin seemed to have missed her more than she missed him. Genius is hard to replace, of course.
More likely, Claudel was deeply aggravated by the loss of her independent reputation, which was epoxy glued to Rodin's. She viewed herself as his equal. Her dexterity exceeded his in some respects (carving marble, for example). She had wasted formative years producing work for Rodin's benefit and acclaim.
Claudel wanted her own fame. It was mostly denied her.
Claudel's deterioration after 1906 likely had little to do with Rodin's actions. And it would be unfortunate to continue to view her life through that clichéd lens.
Claudel was defeated by other factors: socio-historical forces (it was a bad time for a non-conforming woman genius), some form of mental instability or fragile artistic temperament that caused self-sabotage, emotional starvation and isolation, and prolonged economic adversity.
Were the seeds of madness always there in this intense difficult woman? Or was she driven mad by a society and family that didn't approve of her acting like a man? It seems like the latter to me. It was only after sustained adversity that acute paranoia gained the upper hand.
But I've done all this reading and writing and I don't have the answers. There is a scarcity of documentation about Claudel. What there is no scarcity of is evidence of her brilliance.
For decades, Claudel’s work languished, consigned to the dust bin of history.
Then, in 1984, her great niece Reine-Marie Paris published a biography of Claudel, repudiating her grandfather Paul's treatment of her. She was never told about Claudel: "the subject was taboo, because bringing it up might reignite an old argument about her internment in a psychiatric asylum, which was considered abusive." Paris believes Claudel was a woman "ahead of her time" and victimized by Rodin.
That same year, in 1984, the Rodin Museum staged a major exhibition of Claudel's works. In 1986 and 2013, Claudel became the subject of two star studded, award winning biopics. In 2017, the Camille Claudel Museum opened to fanfare in Nogent-sur-Seine.
It was a triumphant posthumous outcome. Claudel finally got her artistic due, the fame and success that eluded her in her lifetime.
The Camille Claudel Room in the Rodin Museum in Paris
Before his death, Rodin set aside a room for Claudel in his proposed museum in the Hotel Biron. The Rodin Museum opened in 1919, two years after Rodin’s death. But there was no Camille Claudel room.
In 1952, after repeated requests, Claudel’s brother Paul Claudel finally donated four major works by Claudel to the museum: Vertumnus and Pomona and two versions of both The Age of Maturity and Clotho. The collection was gradually increased by donations and acquisitions.
Currently, the Rodin Museum has 20 Claudel pieces in total. The Camille Claudel Room was among the rooms renovated by the museum in 2015 and is quite stunning.
Camille Claudel Museum, Nogent-sur-Seine
The Camille Claudel Museum opened in May 2017. It is located 60 miles southeast of Paris in the quaint town of Nogent-sur-Seine. Claudel lived there for three years as a teen. It is where she made her first sculptures.
The museum has the largest public collection of Claudel's works in the world. It was the first museum in France dedicated to a female artist.
The town transformed and extended the former Claudel family home to create a three story exhibition space. Designed by the architect Adelfo Scaranello, the museum blends a modern facade with the clay bricks that inspired Claudel.
Claudel's great niece Paris says the museum is official recognition of "her art and her genius.” It's also “a way to separate her from Rodin." Paris sold her 43 works for $13.5 million to the museum and it constitutes the bulk of the collection.
The museum starts with a room dedicated to the sculptors who influenced Claudel as a young girl: Paul Dubois, Alfred Boucher, and Marius-Joseph Ramus.
Claudel’s more intense work is well-placed in five modest scaled galleries, in which the emphasis is on the evolution of her skills and voice. There are four versions of The Waltz, two verisons of The Gossips, and two versions of Deep Thought.
The museum also recently acquired Claudel’s Young Girl with a Sheaf. This work preceded Rodin’s Galatea by three years and confirms that he was influenced by Claudel.
In Room 14, you'll find Claudel's masterpiece, the Age of Maturity -- my very favorite work of hers. It can be interpreted as an allegory on aging or as a wrenching depiction of events in her life. There is a large scale version of this piece in Paris' Musee D’Orsay.
The sculpture is usually interpreted as an autobiographical love triangle between Rodin, his aging and jealous companion Beuret, and his young lover Claudel. As an image of Beuret stealing Rodin away from Claudel. The sculpture's drapery around the male figure suggests that by rejecting passionate love in favor of domestic equilibrium, Rodin has emasculated himself.
The museum also has Claudel’s only monumental marble sculpture and the product of a private commission, Perseus and the Gorgon. It is a theme from mythology — the Greek hero Perseus clutching the severed head of the Gorgon. But in Claudel’s sculpture, the face of the Gorgon is a self portrait. It is a deeply personal piece, reflecting her fraught psyche at the time.
Not only is there a museum to celebrate her sculpture, but Claudel’s artwork recently sold for record prices. In November 2017, 20 pieces owned by her sister Louise sold for over $4 million, including her grand bronze L’Abandon.
The resurrection of the talented Camille Claudel is almost complete. Hopefully, it won't be short lived.
Practical Information for Rodin Museum and Camille Claudel Museum:
The Rodin Museum in Paris:
Address: 77 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France
Hours: Open daily, except Monday, 10:00 am to 6:30 pm
Entry fee: 12 €, audioguide 6 €
Metro: Varenne (line 13) or Invalides (line 13, line 8)
Camille Claudel Museum:
Address: 10 rue de Gustave Flaubert, 10400 Noget-sur-Seine, 1 hour from the Gare de l’Est station in Paris. The museum is a 10 minute walk from the train station.
Hours: Open Wed-Sat 11:00 am to 6:00 pm & Sunday 1:00 am to 6:00 pm
Entry fee: € 7, under 26 free, audio guide included in entry fee
Tel: +33(0) 3 25 24 76 34
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