Depicting two lovers joined in an exhilarating whirlwind of dance, La Valse is the undisputed masterpiece of Camille Claudel’s career, sculpted at the height of her all-consuming, tumultuous affair with Rodin. Caught up in the euphoria of the moment, the embracing man and woman surrender themselves to the passionate music; their interlocking, precariously balanced forms convey the sensual abandon of their union, which is echoed in the swirling motion of the woman’s long, flowing train. “The Waltz earned Camille her place among her top-ranking contemporaries,” Antoinette Le Normand-Romaine has declared (Camille Claudel and Rodin: Fateful Encounter, exh. cat., Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, 2005, p. 117).
Claudel began work on La Valse in 1889, as she began to assert her artistic independence from Rodin after six years as his apprentice and collaborator. She completed this ambitious sculpture in early 1892 and petitioned the Ministry of Fine Arts to fund a marble version. The critic Armand Dayot, sent to inspect the sculpture on the Ministry’s behalf, enthusiastically praised the execution of the dancers, nude in this first version. “All the details of this group are of a perfect virtuosity,” Dayot wrote. “Rodin himself would not have rendered with more art and conscience the quivering life in the muscles and even the trembling of the skin” (quoted in ibid., p. 110). The unabashed eroticism of the couple, however, shocked him, especially coming from a female sculptor. He advised Claudel to add drapery, suggesting it would moreover enhance the vertiginous sensation of the dancers’ movement.
Claudel completed a new version of the sculpture by the last weeks of 1892. This time, the inspector supported her request for a state commission whole-heartedly. “A graceful intertwining of forms superbly combining in a harmonious rhythm amidst the twirling encirclement of drapery,” Dayot described the sculpture. “Mlle Claudel wanted to sacrifice the least nudity possible, and she was right. The light scarf which clings to the woman’s sides, leaving the torso naked, an admirable torso gracefully leaning back as if fleeing a kiss, ends in a sort of shivering train. It is like a torn sheath out of which a winged creature seems to be suddenly emerging. This already so beautiful group, of such striking originality and so powerfully executed, would greatly benefit from being transposed into marble” (quoted in ibid., p. 113).
Despite Dayot’s passionate defense, the Minister of Fine Arts Henry Roujon remained unconvinced that propriety had prevailed, and he scuttled Claudel’s hopes for state support. This official objection, though, did not prevent La Valse from earning a chorus of critical acclaim when Claudel showed it at the 1893 Salon. On Dayot’s advice, the founder Siot-Decauville acquired the plaster from the Salon and soon after produced a single bronze cast, which was exhibited at the Salon de la Libre Esthétique in Brussels in 1894.
The next year, Claudel conceived a third version of the sculpture, removing the drapery that enveloped the figures’ heads and thus calling greater attention to the tender kiss that the man places upon the woman’s neck. Pleased with the results, Claudel produced some twelve plaster examples of this new version between 1895 and 1898, which she presented to close friends such as Claude Debussy, Robert Godet, and Frits Thaulow. In 1900, Siot-Decauville sold the reproduction rights to the sculpture to the founder Eugène Blot, who, with Claudel’s blessing, produced an edition of twenty-five bronze casts of the unveiled group. The present bronze, numbered ‘11,’ is a relatively early example in the series, likely cast circa 1905.