The Tragic Lover Who Never Escaped Rodin’s Shadow

Camille Claudel was Auguste Rodin’s lover, muse and most gifted pupil. Her sad life belies a formidable talent, writes Fisun Güner.

By Fisun Güner

 “I showed her where to find gold, but the gold she finds belongs to her.” 

These are the words of Auguste Rodin, said of his most talented pupil Camille Claudel. When the elder French sculptor took her under his wing she was just 19, he 42, and her extraordinary precocity was evident. At 20 she produced what is possibly her first great work, Portrait of Paul Claudel aged 16, (1884,) a clay bust of her younger brother, an equally precocious talent who would later make his own name as a celebrated poet and dramatist.

Rodin proved a great creative spur for Camille’s talent, but it’s evident that their intense relationship bore fruit in his own work. It was a complex partnership that lasted almost 15 years, but eventually Claudel felt the need to break free from her mentor, for she hadn’t simply been Rodin’s gifted pupil, but his assistant, his muse and his lover. The only way to gain recognition for her own work, and for her talent to grow independently from his, was, she felt, to break away. But though her light was to burn with a fevered intensity for a few years more after they parted, her creative life was tragically short-lived.

Only 90 works exist today, since much of it was destroyed by her own hand, or else simply lost

This year is the centenary of Rodin’s death, and needless to say his genius has long been recognised. What’s more, in addition to an international programme of commemorative exhibitions, permanent displays of casts and editions of his most famous works have long been a fixture in museums and public locations around the world. These include The Age of Bronze, The Thinker, The Kiss, and the monumental and sombre Burghers of Calais, among many other well-known pieces.

The same can hardly be said of Claudel, even though there has been a growing interest in her life and work since the 1980s, with films, numerous biographies, and even a play and a ballet produced in recent years, many of which naturally concentrate on her intense relationship with Rodin. To add to the list a new film, simply called Rodin, which this time focuses on the less photogenic elder sculptor but which also dwells on his relationship with Claudel, is released this year, to coincide with the anniversary.

Yet in Claudel’s oeuvre, only 90 works in total exist today, since much of her work was destroyed by her own hand, or else simply lost. Of the works that survive most are small, intimate pieces, in contrast to Rodin’s grand projects. Most of these were cast in bronze years after they were modelled, by her Paris dealer Eugène Blot. Some, such as the romantic and achingly tender Sakountala, which finds a common theme with Rodin’s erotic sculptures of young couples, remain as plaster pieces, since she was unable to get a commission for them. Unlike her famous mentor, Claudel never received a public commission, although she regularly exhibited her work during the years she was active and was frequently lauded by critics for her outstanding talent which certainly matched Rodin’s own in terms of their material expressiveness.

Unlike Rodin, however, there is little that’s overtly sexual in their content. Rather they have a hushed, interior and rather melancholic presence, corresponding  well with their small, intimate scale.

‘It is terrible to be so abandoned’

If she was said to have ever escaped Rodin’s shadow, however, it was only to descend into obscurity and isolated paranoia, for the brilliantly gifted Claudel languished in a mental asylum for the last 30 years of her life. Her mental health deteriorated over several years, and she was committed to an asylum in 1913, having been diagnosed as suffering from a state of delirious psychosis.  

In an asylum at Ville-Evrard (she was later moved to the Montdevergues in the Vaucluse, south-east of France, where she remained) she rarely received visitors. Her supportive father had died the same month and year of her incarceration, though she wasn’t told until later, while her mother elected never to see her daughter again. Meanwhile, Paul, whose head she had often sculpted, only visited just over a dozen times in 30 years. The once close siblings exchanged letters but Paul was frequently abroad as a diplomat.

Her paranoic delusions made her afraid that Rodin would steal her ideas if she continued to work

Just as heartbreaking, if not more so, is the fact that she never moulded a lump of clay again. Her life as she’d known it simply stopped. Her paranoid delusions made her afraid that Rodin would steal her ideas if she continued to work, a fear that she expressed in countless letters, as well as letters that simply expressed her distress. “It is terrible to be so abandoned,” she wrote to the asylum doctor in 1915. “I can’t help but succumb to the grief that overwhelms me.”

Rodin, however, continued to support her financially at a distance, setting up a small fund after his death. He’d always expressed a wish that there’d be a Camille Claudel Room when a museum dedicated to his own work opened in Paris. The Rodin Museum opened two years after Rodin’s death, but this wish for a room devoted to his outstanding pupil never materialised.

Now, almost a century later, most of these 90 works have been gathered together  in their new home at the Camille Claudel Museum in Nogent-sur-Seine, a small, sleepy and picturesque town on the banks of the Seine, 100km (62 miles) south-east of Paris where the Claudel family settled in 1876. Designed by Adelfo Scaranello, the understated brick building with its large plate-glass windows incorporates the home in which the Claudels lived for three years, her father having been appointed a mortgage registrar for the town. It was here that the teenage Camille produced her first acclaimed pieces of juvenilia, including a bust of Bismarck, one of Napoleon and a David and Goliath, now all alas lost.  

The three-storey museum includes the work of many of her contemporaries, including Paul Dubois and Alfred Boucher, both at the time acclaimed local sculptors. Dubois was a portraitist but also worked on a monumental scale, his equestrian statue of Joan of Arc is here on the ground floor as a life-sized plaster model (the original bronze is in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Reims, while a copy resides in Washington DC, a gift from France). But many of the works are of the scale in which Claudel herself worked, with only the top floor devoted to her pieces, some of which are paired with thematically similar and intimate works by Rodin.

It was Boucher, who was such a keen advocate for young artists, who was appointed by her father to mentor the young Camille, for unlike her mother, from whom Camille rarely felt love, her father encouraged her artistic talents.

Emerging from obscurity

A little later, once she’d settled in Paris to pursue her sculptural studies (at the Colarossi Academy, since the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts only began admitting women in 1897) and Boucher was unable to continue overseeing her development, he recommended her to Rodin. And one imagines this really was the breakthrough she was seeking, for although Rodin was closely aligned to the humanist tradition that went back to Michelangelo, Rodin’s modernity was vested in his radical expressiveness and his simplified forms, his half-forms and his hulking emerging forms, which appear to grow out of primordial rock. 

 “I think this association helped her creativity, either thanks to the dialogue with his work which enriched her own, or as a reference from which she strived to distance herself,” Cécile Bertran, the museum’s director, explains. “It led her to renew her inspiration and create a completely new and modern style. But at times she also seems to have felt creatively oppressed by his association. She was always keen to establish her artistic independence.”

But however emotionally difficult and fraught the relationship proved in the long run (at some point she probably had an abortion, and there may have been further pregnancies, although we know almost nothing of what became of those; all this while Rodin lived with his long-term companion Rose Beuret and their children) creatively the relationship proved a depthless goldmine of creativity. Her portraits are among her greatest achievements, including the viscerally powerful bust she modelled of Rodin’s impressive head. His features bony, his neck sloping at the back muscular and strong, Rodin claimed it was his favourite likeness of him. This is sculpture fully in the round, and this is what makes it so dynamic.

 

And what a contrast from the stern face of her mentor to the tender head of a child in Little Châtelaine, which captures innocence without sentimentality. Whether it’s the plump freshness of youth, the vulnerability of aged flesh (in, for example, the magnificent three-figure work The Mature Age, with its imploring young girl and an aged, windswept couple depicted in a strange embrace, a larger version of which can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris), crumpled, swirling cloth or the swooning of a dancing couple holding each other in a waltz, Claudel’s versatility, along with her ability to capture the expressly human, is enormously affecting.

That Claudel’s reputation has at last been salvaged from what one might tentatively call the lonely wreckage of her life, and that she has finally emerged from obscurity with the gift of her work housed in a museum that carries her name, is remarkable, considering how little she left behind. But the little she left is still fresh, still striking and still powerful.  

 

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