Camille Claudel, 1864-1943
By Eilís Doolan
Known to most as lover and artistic partner to sculptor Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel is one of the most overlooked artists in Modern European art history. Unfortunately, many of her works have been interpreted merely on an autobiographical level as an extension of her romantic affair with the famous 19thcentury sculptor. Even my second-year art history course, in which an entire lecture was focused on Rodin’s work, failed to discuss a single one of her sculptures. Currently, eleven of her works are exhibited at the Musée D’Orsay, and several others can be found at the Rodin Museum, as well as the recently opened Camille Claudel Museum.
At the age of seventeen, Claudel moved to the Montparnasse neighbourhood in Paris, along with her mother, brother, and younger sister. There, she enrolled in the Académie Colarossa to study sculpture. The École des Beaux Arts did not accept women at the time. A year later, in 1882, Claudel was renting a studio on the Rue Notre-Dame des Champs along with other sculptresses, who were supervised in their training by Alfred Boucher. When Boucher moved to Florence, he convinced sculptor Auguste Rodin to take over his pupils. Rodin fell in love with Claudel almost immediately, and the two started an intense love affair which would inspire both of their work tremendously. After ten years of romance and collaborative work, a period during which she regularly exhibited busts and portraits at the Salon des Artistes Français, Claudel ended her relationship with Rodin.
While it is certainly true that their love affair inspired both Rodin and Claudel, as several of their works serve as declarations or criticisms of love; Claudel’s oeuvre features fewer direct allusions to their relationship. Instead, many of her works are marked by anxious questions about human destiny. Her sculptures convey a particular interest in the old bodies and old age. A series of portraits of children created in the 1890s investigates human life, where the children’s immature features act as visible reminders of the possibilities awaiting them in the future. The soft features, a hopeful gaze, and partially loosened plait of La Petite Chatelaine (1892-95) convey the essence of childhood innocence. In contrast, the long hair of an old woman is sculpted to resemble tentacles in Clotho(1893), a distressing representation of old age and the passing of time, which is reminiscent of one of the three fates. Claudel’s Old Woman’s Head (1890), too, captures the features of old age beautifully: plaster is moulded to convey sunken eyes and wrinkled skin. It is Claudel’s ability to depict the impact of time, while still treating old age with power and dignity, which sets her apart as sculptor.
Woman at her Toilette (1895-97) is part of Claudel’s later, more political period. After 1892, Claudel moved towards experimentation with more intimate scenes—scenes which had previously been restricted to the field of painting. Woman at her Toiletteis a delicate yet expressive rendering of female domesticity. A female figure is seated under a large wave-like drapery, which seems to shield her, while also creating the sense that this scene takes place on a theatre set. Thus, Claudel calls attention to the performativity of the feminine ideal. Other sculptures during this period, which recall the same kind of expressive theatricality, include Les Caseuses/The Gossips (1897) and The Wave (1897-1903).
Claudel continued to work and exhibit until 1905. Yet, she failed to secure a single commission from the French state—a fact which would send her into paranoia. Suffering from increasingly serious financial difficulties, as well as a growing resentment towards Rodin, Claudel became increasingly anxious. In 1913, a week after her she found out her father had died, Claudel was committed to the Ville Evrard mental asylum upon her family’s request. Her family forbade any mail that came from non-family members, and upon admission, it seems that Claudel gave up sculpture entirely. The following year, she was transferred to another institution outside Avignon, where she died alone at the age of 79, after thirty years of confinement.
“Camille Claudel Comes out of the Reserve Collections.” Musée Rodin. Accessed 29 November 2018.http://www.musee-rodin.fr/en/exhibition/camille-claudel.
Delistray, Cody. “Rediscovering the Overlooked Talent of French Sculptor Camille Claudel.” Frieze. 29 January 2018. Accessed 27 November 2018. https://frieze.com/article/rediscovering-overlooked-talent-french-sculptor-camille-claudel-.
“Rodin and Camille Claudel.” Musée Rodin. Accessed 30 November 2018. http://www.musee-rodin.fr/en/resources/educational-files/rodin-and-camille-claudel.