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More Than a Muse: Camille Claudel

The name Camille Claudel appears to have been lost through history. When considering her work, it is not difficult to recognize the hand of an extremely talented artist, and it suddenly becomes strange that such a particular expertise is not talked about more in the art history canon. Claudel’s name is mentioned mostly in association with Auguste Rodin, her mentor and eventual lover; nevertheless, she deserves a place of her own among the pages of history books. While Rodin experienced popularity during his lifetime, Camille did not experience the same notoriety and died in obscurity, a fact evidenced by how challenging it is to find sources of information about her life and career. Camille Claudel was a brilliant and skilled sculptor during the late 19th century. She excelled in her artistry from a young age, even though the artist lifestyle and career was not encouraged for women at the time. Regardless, she managed to get an education in the arts and eventually met her mentor, Auguste Rodin, a renowned sculptor who greatly influenced her artistic style and personal life. Although her body of work is innovative and moving, she has not been as studied and discussed as her male counterparts. This exclusion of Claudel can be narrowed down to the societal constraints women suffered during the time she was alive and a particularly tragic personal life which caused her to die forgotten not only by her family but by society in general.


Early Life and Education

Camille Claudel was born in 1864, the daughter of a landowner who also registered mortgages and handled other investments (Paris, 1988). The Claudels, although not rich, had a comfortable life and were part of the bourgeoisie of Champagne through Camille’s mother (Paris, 1988). Claudel was the oldest of three children, with both a younger sister and brother (Paris, 1988). The Claudel family lived a common life for their economic stature, and they fell into the conventional role of a bourgeois family, particularly Louise Claudel, Camille’s mother. She was rigid with her values and expected her children to follow the conventional middle class upbringing and submit to the established social and gender roles of society (Johnson, 2008). So, Claudel was raised in an emotionally charged yet traditional household. She was completely misunderstood by her mother, yet had a much closer relationship with her father, Louis-Prosper, and her brother, Paul.

Figure 1: Camille Claudel was a talented artist but grew up in a traditional family (Musee Rodin, circa 1884).

Camille Claudel began showing artistic ability early on and at fifteen was an extremely talented sculptor (Paris, 1988). Her mother opposed the cultivation of this talent, but her father became her staunch supporter, encouraging her to continue developing her art. When Louis-Prosper Claudel was transferred from his job in 1881, he moved his family to Paris, which allowed Claudel to receive the very best education available in France (Paris, 1988). At the age of 17, Camille Claudel enrolled in the prestigious Colarossi Academy, rented a studio with other artists. The mentor in Claudel's new studio was prominent artist Alfred Boucher, who also gave classes in Colarossi, a prominent art academy in Paris (Paris, 1988). Living in Paris was also an opportunity to mingle and meet other artists, and Claudel took advantage of this to make her work known to artists such as Paul Dubois, a renowned sculptor and portrait painting in Parisian society.


Claudel’s spirited personality and interest in nature was noticeable in her sculptures, following a naturalistic style and showing a mastery of the craft even in her earliest works (Paris, 1988). The first models Claudel produced were busts of either her brother, Paul, or herself. Paul supported Camille's efforts towards an artistic career, even though this irritated their mother further, as female artists were not completely accepted at the time. It was considered that they did not adhere to the traditional gender roles within French society. Nevertheless, Claudel thrived in Paris and set her goals on becoming a recognized and acclaimed artist (MCC, n.d.).

Figure 2: Camille Claudel showed a skill for sculpting since very young and was passionate about becoming a skilled artist (Musee Rodin, 1887).
Camille and Rodin

Claudel met Auguste Rodin in 1883, when he replaced Boucher as an advisor to Claudel and the other artists she shared her studio with (MCC, n.d.). Rodin was quickly impressed by Claudel’s talent and hired her as an assistant. At the time, Rodin had not reached the iconic status by which he was known later, but he was on the rise as a recognized sculptor and was constantly getting new commissions (Paris, 1988). The growing quantity of new work forced him to hire more help, leading to Camille’s employment in his studio in 1884. Claudel’s first collaboration with Rodin was for The Gates of Hell in 1880, where she lent her talent as a sculptor and her body as a model (Paris, 1988). Claudel became both artist and muse, and the two sculptors influenced each other’s work greatly, not only in style and technique but also by using each other as models. Some of Rodin’s art is clearly inspired by Camille’s pieces which predate his, such as Girl with a Sheaf and Galatea. Some scholars have expressed an opinion pointing at Rodin as outright plagiarising Claudel, with Galatea being a convincing piece of evidence for the case. The two pieces are almost identical in style and form, both representing a young woman in a seated pose reclining on a rock. The style of the model is similar in both pieces, as the young girl seems to be almost coming out of the stone she is sitting against. Claudel completed the model of Girl with a Sheaf in 1887, while Rodin revealed the model for Galatea two years later, in 1889 (Musee Rodin, n.d.). Claudel and Rodin’s professional collaboration quickly became a love affair of quite tempestuous nature. Claudel was described since childhood as fiery and passionate, traits that translated into her adulthood and provoked more tumultuous relationships.


While Rodin was not actually married, he did have a lifelong partner, Rose Beuret, whom he refused to leave for Claudel (Paris, 1988). This was a source of both sadness and anger for Claudel, yet, she continued on with the affair and accompanied the older artist in public many times. Rodin's influence on Claudel's art was evident, both as a teacher and as a man who could affect her mood. She became a more skilled sculptor every day and developed a more lyrical style, studying human anatomy just like Rodin but also including more movement into her work. During the years of the affair, Claudel sculpted models based on romantic scenes, like Shakuntala in 1886, using her art as a way of self-expression. Eventually, Claudel began behaving more angrily toward Rodin and made her dissatisfaction with her fellow artist and lover known too often for Rodin to want to stay with her. The distraught behaviour of the young woman and her constant mocking of Rose began driving a wedge between the couple (Museé Rodin, n.d.).

Figure 3: Rodin never left his lifelong companion, Rose Beuret (pictured) and eventually married Rose a few weeks before her death (Musee Rodin, 1899).
Artistic Style, Themes, and Notable Works

Claudel and Rodin became distanced in the early 1890s. Aside from the vitriolic behavior of Rodin’s partner towards Claudel, and vice versa, Claudel also expressed a growing resentment towards her mentor and lover because of her lack of recognition in her career (Paris, 1988). While Rodin’s star rose, Claudel was not getting the recognition for an equally skilled body of work or even the time to complete her own pieces while she overwhelmingly worked on Rodin's sculptures in his studio. In addition to this, Rodin always maintained a position of superiority over Claudel, as an older gentleman, her mentor, and a more famous artist (Paris, 1988).


Rodin’s influence is visible in Claudel’s work, as the troubled nature of their relationship, and the sorrow this caused for the young artist, is legible in her works, especially after 1892. Camille Claudel’s work became more personal, and she bared her emotions onto her art. The downfall of her relationship with Rodin was evidenced in the themes of her more famous sculptures. Perhaps her most recognized work is The Age of Maturity, a sculpture commissioned in 1895, which depicts a man walking away with an older looking woman while he leaves behind a young woman kneeling after him. The work is almost autobiographical, and the reflection of her personal relationship with Rodin becomes apparent in most of Claudel’s sculptures during this time. The male figure seems to be the representation of Rodin and his refusal to leave his partner for Claudel. The small, pleading figure can be interpreted as Claudel, who begged her mentor and lover for commitment and was ultimately left behind. The artwork also reveals Claudel's personal opinion of Rose in quite a mean-spirited fashion. The third figure in the piece is meant to represent old age, but also Rose, as she drives Rodin away from Claudel. This second woman is shown as an ugly, wrinkled old woman in contrast to the youthful beauty kneeling behind.

Figure 4: The Age of Maturity is one of Claudel's most famous pieces and considered an autobiographical work (Musée Rodin, 1899).

The Waltz, another one of Claudel's most recognized works, was modelled in 1889, while Claudel and Rodin were still engaging in their love affair. In contrast to the tragic The Age of Maturity, this piece presents a sweeter scene. The romantic scene of a couple dancing reminds the viewer of Claudel’s love for Rodin and a desire to grow closer together. If the same autobiographical assumption for the previously mentioned work is applied for The Waltz, it becomes evident that Camille Claudel was deeply in love with Rodin and that they were still enjoying the best days of their romantic and professional partnership. A decade later, in 1898, Claudel broke off the affair with Rodin definitely and moved out of his studio, renting her own space and seeking to make a name by herself unassociated with Rodin’s (MCC, n.d.). After this breakup, Claudel managed to introduce her work in several exhibitions in Paris up until 1908. She began getting more recognition yet remained virtually unknown to the general public and never managed to reach Rodin’s level of fame.


Personal Struggles and Later Life

The fallout of her relationship with Rodin, and the apparent failure of an artistic career, caused Claudel to experience periods of deep melancholy (MCC, n.d.). In some of her letters to family and friends, she describes paranoid thoughts about Rodin and destructive tendencies inspired by her failed career. She expressed a fear of her former mentor and blamed him for her lack of success. With the death of her father in 1913, Claudel lost her strongest supporter and her emotional state worsened. A certificate to have her institutionalized was quickly signed by a doctor, and she was taken to a mental hospital only seven days after Louis-Prosper Claudel died (MCC, n.d.). Although there is a lack of concrete evidence, it is widely accepted, and most likely, that Claudel's mother and brother spearheaded the plan to have her committed, as they tried to take her out of the artistic scene many times (Paris, 1988). While Paul had once been quite supportive of his sister, he had become more conservative and religious with age, which could be the reason he sided with his mother.

Figure 5: Camille Claudel spent the last 30 years of her life locked away in solitude (William Elborne, 1929).

Camille Claudel received only a small number of visitors during her stay in the Montdevergues asylum, living a lonely and sequestered life. Claudel never showed signs of having a severe mental illness, and her doctors constantly expressed that she could be released from the forced institutionalization and live a normal life amongst the general public. Despite these reports, her mother and brother refused to allow her release (Mathews, 1999). Camille was left to die alone in the asylum and was never able to sculpt again.


Legacy

Camille Claudel died in 1943 and was buried in a mass grave next to the asylum her family forced her into (Paris, 1988). She began her life as a promising talent and was able to produce a beautiful body of work which reflected her gift and also the tragic circumstances of her life. Claudel's name was mostly talked about in the context of her relationship to Rodin and this replaced her work as the most relevant part of her life. While Camille Claudel never garnered the recognition she deserved during her life and was forgotten for many years after her death, art historians of the 21st century have made an effort to salvage her work and assert her position as a prominent sculptor in the late 1800s. A museum dedicated to Camille Claudel finally opened in the year 2012, a hundred years after she was forcibly committed to the asylum. Claudel's work can finally be appreciated, and her memory shines as bright as she hoped.

Bibliographical References

About Auguste Rodin. Rodin Museum. (n.d.). https://rodinmuseum.org/collection/about-auguste-rodin


Camille Claudel. (2005). Paris: Musée Marmottan-Monet.


Camille Claudel. Museé Rodin. (n.d.). https://www.musee-rodin.fr/en/resources/rodin-and-artists/camille-claudel


Chilvers, I., & Glaves-Smith, J. G.-S. (2009). Claudel, Camille. In Oxford Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art (2nd ed., p. 140). Oxford University Press.


Matthews, P. (1999). The Gender of Creativity. In Passionate Discontent: Creativity, Gender, and French Symbolist Art (pp. 64–85). essay, The University of Chicago Press.


Musee Camille Claudel. (n.d.). 1864 – 1876: Early childhood in a provincial middle-class family. Musee Camille Claudel. https://www.museecamilleclaudel.fr/en/collections/camille-claudel-biography/1864-1876-early-childhood-provincial-middle-class-family


Musee Camille Claudel. (n.d.). 1876 – 1881: An early vocation discovered and encouraged by Alfred Boucher Musee Camille Claudel. https://www.museecamilleclaudel.fr/en/collections/camille-claudel-biography/1876-1881-early-vocation-discovered-and-encouraged-alfred

Musee Camille Claudel. (n.d.). 1881-1885: Her arrival in Paris and encounter with Auguste Rodin: a decisive turning point. Musee Camille Claudel. https://www.museecamilleclaudel.fr/en/collections/camille-claudel-biography/1881-1885-her-arrival-paris-and-encounter-auguste-rodin

Musee Camille Claudel. (n.d.). 1886 -1893: Rodin and Camille Claudel: a tumultuous love affair and an impassioned, intense artistic dialogue. Musee Camille Claudel. https://www.museecamilleclaudel.fr/en/collections/camille-claudel-biography/1886-1893-rodin-and-camille-claudel-tumultuous-love-affair-and


Musee Camille Claudel. (n.d.). 1909-1943 : Period of confinement. Musee Camille Claudel. https://www.museecamilleclaudel.fr/en/collections/camille-claudel-biography/1909-1943-period-confinement


Paris, R.M. (1988). Camille: the life of Camille Claudel, Rodin’s muse and mistress. New York: Seaver Books.

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Maya Sánchez Urrutia

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