The French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) was the muse, pupil, and lover of Auguste Rodin, as well as a major artist in her own right. She is perhaps better known for her tempestuous relationship with Rodin than for her moving works of art, many of which can be found at the Musee Rodin in Paris.
After her breakup with Rodin in 1898, Claudel composed some of her best sculptures, yet she grew increasingly reclusive and paranoid. In 1913 her family committed her to an insane asylum, where she remained for the last 30 years of her life.
Camille Claudel was the eldest of three children born to Louis-Prosper Claudel, a civil servant, and Louise-Athenaise Cervaux Claudel, a middle class country housewife on December 8, 1864 in Fere-en-Tardenois, France. The family moved occasionally as Louis-Prosper’s work demanded, living for a time in the small town of Bar-le-Duc, where Claudel first attended school at the age of six. However, the family returned often to its ancestral home in the small village of Villeneuve in the Champagne region of France. Though not wealthy, the Claudels were well established in the community and lived comfortably.
At an early age Claudel took an interest in modeling with clay, finding in the art of sculpture an outlet for her active imagination. A willful and precocious child, she quickly adopted the identity of an artist and never doubted her talents. Before she had even taken lessons in sculpture, Claudel coaxed every family member—her father, mother, brother, and sister—into posing for clay-modeled portraits.
While Claudel’s father encouraged his daughter in her pursuit of art, the young sculptor’s mother never accepted what she regarded as her daughter’s unconventional, proud, and wayward disposition. Of her three children, Louise-Athenaise favored Claudel the least, preferring her obedient and traditional younger sister, Louise. In a household filled with discord, Claudel turned for affection to her father, and especially to her brother, Paul, to whom she grew very close.
Like his sister, Paul had an artist’s temperament. He crafted a talent for writing that would make him one of France’s leading poets and playwrights. The two artists shared a deep love and understanding, and from an early age they motivated and inspired each other in their creative endeavors. The unusually intense bond between the sculptor-sister and poet-brother would later become a subject of fascination and curiosity among cultural historians.
By the age of 15 Claudel had completed her first significant sculptures, which included busts of Napoleon and Bismarck (who defeated Napoleon III) as well as a group of figures depicting the tale of David and Goliath. (None of these works survives.) At this time she and her family were living in Nogent-sur-Seine, a Champagne town about 60 miles from Paris. The location was an auspicious one for Claudel, as the town was home to two respected nineteenth-century sculptors, Alfred Boucher and Paul Dubois. Boucher, asked by Claudel’s father to give his opinion on the young girl’s work, expressed astonishment at her talent and encouraged Louis-Prosper to send his daughter to study at an art academy.
At that time only men could attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the prestigious academy in Paris, but some private art schools admitted female students. In 1881, before she turned 17, Claudel entered the Colarossi Academy in Paris, sharing a studio with three female British art students. One of these, Jessie Lipscomb, would remain a lifelong friend.
The first sculptures Claudel completed at the school are among the earliest surviving examples of her formative works. These include a bronze bust of her brother at age 13 (made in 1881) and La Vieille Helene (1882), modeled after the family housekeeper. The latter piece would become her first exhibited work in 1885.
Boucher took an interest in his young protege’s progress, and every Friday he would visit the studio to give advice to Claudel and Lipscomb. When Boucher relocated to Italy in 1883, he arranged for another sculptor to continue these weekly tutorials. His replacement was Auguste Rodin, then 43 years old and considered perhaps the foremost sculptor of his day, though not yet celebrated as a master.
The first meeting between Claudel and Rodin is a subject of much speculation, although little is known of the fateful day. At 19, when she met Rodin, Claudel was strikingly beautiful, with large blue eyes and chestnut hair. The young sculptor displayed a passion for her art that Rodin doubtless found disarming as well. In 1884 he completed his first bust of the woman who would become his collaborator and muse.
The following year, Claudel and Lipscomb had become habitues in Rodin’s studio, hired as assistants to help complete his masterpiece, The Gates of Hell. Rodin had begun this large-scale work in 1880, and it would continue to consume him until 1917. Claudel became Rodin’s most active assistant, posing as figures and helping to compose various elements of the sculpture. Many art historians believe that Claudel also sculpted the hands and feet of the Burghers of Calais, Rodin’s monument to six citizens who gave their lives to save the French town of Calais in the fourteenth century.
Thus began a long period of intense relations between Claudel and Rodin, who had become lovers as well as partners in artistic creation. Art historians continue to disagree about which of the two sculptors most influenced the other. Many contend that their influence was mutual. What is clear is that Rodin produced much more artwork than Claudel during this time, and that she helped him do so. All of Rodin’s assistants (and there were many) helped build the legendary sculptor’s reputation as a prolific artist of almost superhuman productivity—especially during the late 1880s and early 1890s, when Claudel was at his side.
The love affair and creative collaboration between Claudel and Rodin would last nearly 15 years. Letters from Rodin in the mid-1880s reveal just how smitten he was with the female sculptor who was 24 years his junior. In 1886 he followed Claudel to England, where she was visiting Lipscomb. Accounts of this early stage in their relationship depict Claudel as elusive and perhaps teasingly coy with the famous sculptor. Rodin, meanwhile, held a longstanding reputation as a womanizer, a sculptor specializing in the female nude who required fresh models regularly. He also remained involved with one woman whose presence preceded—and long outlasted—that of Claudel. This was Rose Beuret, a seamstress whom Rodin had met in the mid-1860s as well as the mother of his son, Auguste.
As relations intensified between Rodin and Claudel, Beuret naturally became a subject of contention between the lovers. Claudel repeatedly asked Rodin to choose between them, but he refused, desiring to keep both women in his life. Beuret, who lived with the sculptor, kept his house, and raised his child, seemed willing to accept her lover’s infidelities and his lack of interest in marriage. In most circles, Beuret was known as Madame Rodin, despite their unmarried status. Rodin’s unwillingness to leave Beuret would ultimately drive Claudel away. Some believe it also drove her mad.
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.
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.
In 1893 Claudel exhibited two sculptures at the Paris Salon: The Waltz and Clotho, a moving depiction of one of the Fates from Greek mythology. Claudel depicts Clotho as an elderly woman with a hauntingly wasted body, tangled in the threads of destiny she must weave. Both pieces were received well by critics, and it seemed that Claudel, about to turn 30, was entering her peak as an artist.
While Claudel’s work flourished in the 1890s, her relationship with Rodin progressively deteriorated. She did not want to share Rodin with Beuret, but she was not content, either, merely to be the muse of her famous lover; she wanted a successful career of her own. The break between the lovers took years, but by 1889 the relationship was over. Claudel would not let Rodin enter her studio, though she is said to have often hidden in the bushes near the artist’s house to watch him return home at night.
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.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Claudel had begun a pattern of working obsessively for months, and then destroying her creations. She had become reclusive, losing touch with the world, taking in stray cats, and letting her apartment fall into a state of filthy disrepair. She struggled with poverty, and turned down social invitations with the excuse that she had nothing to wear. Increasingly, she grew paranoid of Rodin, imagining that he was plotting against her.
Claudel’s family became aware of her circumstances and her apparent descent into madness. Upon his return to France in 1909 after four years of diplomatic service, Paul Claudel found his sister appallingly changed. In his journal (quoted in the Smithsonian) he described her as “insane, enormous, with a soiled face, speaking incessantly in a monotonous metallic voice.”
For a few more years Claudel lived in her disheveled studio, with her shutters closed to the light and neighbors warning their children not to speak to her. Then, on March 5, 1913, three days after the death of their father, Louis-Prosper, Paul arranged for his sister’s internment at a mental asylum in Ville-Evrard, near Paris. Five days later two orderlies broke into Claudel’s apartment and took her to the asylum in an ambulance. She was 39 years old.
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.
“I live in a world that is so curious, so strange,” Claudel wrote in a letter to a friend in 1935. “Of the dream which was my life, this is the nightmare.” She died eight years later, on October 19, 1943 in Montdevergues, France.
- December, 08, 1864
- Aisne, France
- October, 10, 1943
- Montdevergues, France
- Cimetière de Montfavet
- Montfavet, France