“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
The late 19th century sculptor Camille Claudel is best known for her relationship to the sculptor Auguste Rodin. But whereas history has painted her as Rodin’s muse (and indeed she was), she was a top artist in her own right and many scholars believe that it is her work that shaped Rodin’s even more than she influenced his.
Claudel met Rodin at the age of 19 when she was studying at the Academy Colarossi in Paris with the sculptor Alfred Boucher. When Boucher returned to Italy, he asked Rodin to take over Claudel’s instruction.
Claudel was said to have a fiery, dominant temperament, a caustic wit and a savage gift for mockery. Before long, she had become Rodin’s model and lover as well as his inspiration.
But Rodin – 25 years Claudel’s senior — was already in a committed relationship with Rose Beuret. Although he promised to leave Rose – and, indeed, signed a contract with Claudel stating he would leave Rose and “have no other woman or model” – he never did and by all accounts their 10-year relationship was passionate and stormy.
It was, however, artistically fruitful for both. As Rodin’s apprentice, Claudel was able to study anatomy and the nude human figure, an opportunity generally denied to 19th century women. She herself became Rodin’s model, posing for his famous Gates of Hell sculpture and modeling her hands and feet for his Burghers of Calais.
She, in turn, brought to their work an abundant sensuality and sense of ephemera (that which exists or is enjoyed for only a fleeting moment of time), visible in such works as The Waltz and The Wave.
As a woman sculpting nudes, however, Claudel was subject to censorship that did not affect Rodin. In 19th century Paris, artists needed official approval and funding to get clay works cast in bronze. But when the inspectors viewed The Waltz and saw two nude bodies in close proximity, they refused to give her permission to cast it. Rodin faced no such censorship.
Influencing the public perception of Claudel was that she was an unmarried woman. As she grew older and Rodin refused to leave Rose (and began having the success that eluded Claudel), Claudel began to suspect Rodin of plotting against her. In 1892, she finally left him.
Claudel continued to work and exhibit until 1905. But she was dependent on men for financial support and she may have been suffering from latent mental illness. When her father died in 1913 and her family cut her off financially, she found herself on the streets of Paris, dressed in beggar’s clothes. One week later, her brother had her committed to the Ville-Evrard mental asylum from where she was transferred to the psychiatric hospital at Montdevergues near Avignon.
Claudel gave up sculpture and all attempts to gain her freedom, even though experts think it highly unlikely she was mentally ill. In October 1943, at the age of 79 and after thirty years in an asylum, she died alone.
In recent years, however, Claudel’s reputation has been rehabilitated. Her sculptures now sell for millions of dollars and her impact on sculpture – including her influence on the works of Rodin – has been acknowledged.
More than a muse and a madwoman, Camille Claude was one of the most influential women in the history of art, and one of history’s most talented artists — period.