L'abandon is one of the most famous and recognised masterpieces created by Camille Claudel, the much-romanticised and respected artist who, during much of the 1880s and the early 1890s, worked alongside her then lover, Auguste Rodin. This example belongs to the important early set of casts created in the Blot foundry around 1905, when the artist was at the height of her fame; examples of this cast are held in the Musée de Beaux Arts de Gant and the Musée Cambrai; the present example remained in the artist's family for several decades. In her twenties when the sculpture was originally conceived, Claudel was in her forties when it was cast, and a number of her works had been acquired by the French State, a tribute to her prodigious skills in modelling her materials and also to her innovative presentation of subject matter which conveyed a sense of intense interiority. This recognition is being cemented with the imminent opening of the Musée Camille Claudel in her native Nogent-sur-Seine, which will feature a range of her works, many originating from her family's own collection.
It is now believed that Claudel began the sculpture which would be the springboard for L'abandon around 1886; certainly, the first large-scale plaster version, entitled Çacountala, was finished in time to be shown at the 1888 Salon, where it received considerable praise including an honourable mention, marking out Claudel as a force in her own right rather than an assistant to Rodin. Indeed, by this time, the two artists, despite a span of decades between their ages, were actively engaged in a cross-germination of ideas that would lead each of them to create some of their most acclaimed masterpieces. Claudel had been sent to Paris in 1882 in order to study sculpture, partly with the encouragement of another sculptor, Alfred Boucher, who continued to supervise her work at the Académie Colarossi. When Boucher left Paris for Italy, his friend Rodin took on some of his duties and in this way met Claudel. By 1884, she was working as his assistant, apparently modelling some of the finer, more complex details in sculptures such as Les bourgeois de Calais.
In a photograph taken in 1887, Claudel was shown at work on the large-scale female figure of Çacountala, a sculpture based on an ancient tale which had been adapted into a celebrated Sanskrit play by Kalidasa a millennium-and-a-half ago. In that story of enchantment, a king regains the lost memory of his wife who is living in the forest with their son and is reunited with her: this is the moment captured in Çacountala and the scaled-down L'abandon alike. Claudel, doubtless aware that the obscurity of the tale meant that people did not recognise its subject matter, in the interim entitled a marble example Vertumne et Pomone, taking another myth as her source. In the story of Vertumnus and Pomona, the former god of the seasons tried again and again to seduce Pomona; eventually, in the guise of an old woman, he managed to use a parable and a story to persuade her of the benefits of marriage, before revealing himself, an act which convinced her. Usually, artists focussed on the episodes in which Vertumnus was disguised in order to explore the contrast between old and young female flesh; for Claudel, though, it was the moment of union - of abandon - that was the focus.
That theme doubtless reflected the romance in Claudel's own life. Çacountala dates from the height of her relationship with Rodin, when they were essentially working alongside one another and frequently travelling to the Loire together for prolonged visits. At the beginning of their relationship, Rodin pursued her with some application; after some time, her own reserve appears to have melted away, and they embarked upon what was to become a turbulent affair which ended with some acrimony. Since then, this relationship has been immortalised in books and films alike, especially because of Claudel's apparent decline in mental health which resulted in her incarceration; indeed, Juliette Binoche plays her in a film about to be released, Camille Claudel, 1915. Even before being sent to an asylum, her increasing instability meant that she destroyed many of her works, adding to the rarity of those that are extant. L'abandon conveys some of the sensuality and eroticism of the relationship at its height.
This was similarly evident in Rodin's own works, which during this period are considered to have seen an influx of sexuality. This was perhaps most famously evidenced in Le baiser, a work to which L'abandon, with its theme of the embracing man and woman, has often been compared. Indeed, even Claudel's brother, the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, contrasted what he perceived as the lust of Le baiser with the chasteness of L'abandon. Discussing Rodin's sculpture, he explained:
'the man is so to speak attablé [sitting down to dine] at the woman. He is sitting down in order to make the most of his opportunity. He uses both his hands, and she does her best, as the Americans say, to deliver the goods [original in English]. In my sister's group, spirit is of the essence: the man on his knees; he is pure desire, his face lifted, yearning, clasping that which he does not dare to seize, this marvellous being, this sacred flesh which, at some higher level, has been bestowed on him. She yields, blind, mute, weighted down, succumbing to the gravity that is love; one of her arms hangs down like a branch broken by its fruit, the other covers her breasts and protects this heart, the supreme sanctuary of virginity. It is impossible to imagine anything more ardent and at the same time more chaste' (Paul Claudel, quoted in F.V. Grunfeld, Rodin: A Biography, London, 1988, p. 222).
Claudel learnt a great deal from Rodin, working in his studio. At the same time, her innovative approaches to modelling and to subject matter would have a profound effect on Rodin. Early on in their period of collaboration, his Galatée showed a posture that clearly relates to her La jeune fille à la gerbe. Similarly, the legacy of Claudel's relationship with Rodin would reverberate through his own sculptures, not least those with male figures kneeling before naked females, a compositional theme that would appear in L'éternelle idole, made before 1891 and therefore during their time together, and later in L'homme et sa pensée.