Camille Claudel, so talented, so heart-wrenching / by Jeannine Cook

Camille Claudel, the incredibly talented sculptor whose name is forever linked to that of Auguste Rodin, lived in Nogent sur Seine, France, as a teenager. There, she was encouraged and mentored by fellow Nogentais, Alfred Boucher, probably the most famous realist sculptor in France in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Thanks to his support, Camille was able to surmount the bias against women in the arts and moved to Paris to study under him at his artists' community, La Ruche. When Boucher moved to Rome to work at the Villa Medicis in 1883, he asked Rodin to take on his pupil, Camille Claudel. It proved a fateful move. This intensely blue-eyed young woman was sufficiently arresting that she would have probably stopped any man in his tracks, and more especially an artist.

 Camille Claudel aged 17, photographed by Cesar, 1881, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

Camille Claudel aged 17, photographed by Cesar, 1881, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

Not only was Rodin hugely impressed by her talent but he was influenced artistically by her, and admitted that he consulted her on everything ( "Mademoiselle Claudel est devenue mon praticien le plus extraordinaire, je la consulte en toute chose. ") Almost inevitably, the two were soon involved in a passionate love affair. They both worked, for instance, on the French State commission that produced the incredibly famous 1889 sculpture, The Kiss. An eloquent statement of the then situation.

 Le Baiser, marble, 1889, Auguste Rodin (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

Le Baiser, marble, 1889, Auguste Rodin (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

 Sakountala (1905, détail), Camille Claudel, marble, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

Sakountala (1905, détail), Camille Claudel, marble, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

Their close collaboration continued, but there was friction - Rodin would not give up his long-time model and mistress, Rose Beuret, and flatly refused to entertain the idea of marriage with Camille Claudel.  Camille too began to chafe at the bit and wanted to strike out more on her own in terms of creativity.  Eventually, the split came after a dozen or so years, but Rodin was really involved emotionally with her for many years to come.

 La Pensée (1901), Auguste Rodin, marble, Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art), a portrait of Camille Claudel

La Pensée (1901), Auguste Rodin, marble, Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art), a portrait of Camille Claudel

The next chapters of Camille's life become increasingly sad as she struck out on her own and often struggled to obtain commissions. Leaving behind the sculptures focused on the movement and expression of nude bodies, one of Rodin's favourite themes, she sought to express the simplicity and immediacy of a gesture, so often a fugitive moment. One of the most famous of her works was from this period, The Waltz, which she eventually presented to Claude Debussy.

 La Valse (1905), Camille Claudel,  bronze, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

La Valse (1905), Camille Claudel,  bronze, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

 La Valse, Camille Claudel. Other versions of the same sculpture at the Musée Camille Claudel, Nogent sur Seine (photograph J. Cook)

La Valse, Camille Claudel. Other versions of the same sculpture at the Musée Camille Claudel, Nogent sur Seine (photograph J. Cook)

Her work was supported for a while by a rich benefactress, Countess Arthur de Maigret, but by 1905, Camille fell out with the Countess and that was the end of her financial support. By this time, her psychological instability was becoming more pronounced and from that time onwards, her story becomes increasingly heart-wrenching.

  La Vague (The Wave), 1897, bronze and onyx marble, Camille Claudel, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

 La Vague (The Wave), 1897, bronze and onyx marble, Camille Claudel, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

Eventually, her family confined her to institutions and ensured that she stayed there, until her lonely death, probably by starvation, in 1943, aged 79. For a long time, she and her work were mostly forgotten and only after a book, Camelle Claudel, a Woman, by Anne Delbée, appeared in 1982, did interest reawaken in this woman sculptor.

  Camille Claudel à l'asile de Montdevergues , 1929, William Elborne, Gelatin silver print. Private collection, United Kingdom

Camille Claudel à l'asile de Montdevergues, 1929, William Elborne,
Gelatin silver print. Private collection, United Kingdom

Nogent sur Seine has recently opened a new Camille Claudel museum, since Claudel's original mentor, Alfred Boucher, had left many sculptures of his own and hers, to the town. I spent an afternoon visiting the museum, and have to confess that I came away impressed but also very disquieted by her work.

La Valse already shows her tendency for her pieces to be off-kilter, defying gravity as it were. There were some interesting examples in the museum vitrines of work that Rodin and Claudel did from the same model, clearly working side by side.  His would be centered, literally and psychologically, while hers were far less so. Her famous piece, L'Âge mûr, (Maturity), done when she was at the end of her affaire with Rodin, is another gravity-defying piece.

 L'Âge mûr (1899), Camille Claudel, bronze, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

L'Âge mûr (1899), Camille Claudel, bronze, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

 La Fortune, 1904-05, bronze, Camille Claudel, Musée Camille Claudel, Nogent sur Seine (photograph J. Cook)

La Fortune, 1904-05, bronze, Camille Claudel, Musée Camille Claudel, Nogent sur Seine (photograph J. Cook)

 The Flute Player, bronze, 1905, Camille Claudel, Musée Camille Claudel, Nogent sur Seine (photograph J. Cook)

The Flute Player, bronze, 1905, Camille Claudel, Musée Camille Claudel, Nogent sur Seine (photograph J. Cook)

Some of the smaller pieces of her work, such as the versions of Les Causeuses, of the girls chatting, from 1897, are relatively stable, but for me, the ensemble of her work spoke of great psychological turmoil that showed up perhaps earlier than it was recognised.

 Les Causeuses or Les Bavardes, 1897, bronze and onyx marble, Camille Claudel, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

Les Causeuses or Les Bavardes, 1897, bronze and onyx marble, Camille Claudel, (Image courtesy of the Musée Rodin, Paris)

My heart went out to this talented lady - life must have often been hell for her and help must have been sorely absent. One hopes that today's versions of such situations allow for a happier passage through life.

The Camille Claudel Museum in Nogent sur Seine does her talent great service and puts it well in the context of that male-sculptor-dominated time.