Why the pioneering sculptor Camille Claudel was declared ‘a woman of genius’
The brilliant French artist was overshadowed by the men in her life for almost a century, but her work is at last gaining recognition. Here are 10 things to know about her
Camille Claudel was a trailblazing artist, but she fought her whole life for recognition
In 2017, the French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) finally got the recognition she had striven for when the Musée Camille Claudel opened in her childhood home town of Nogent-sur-Seine, some 100km southeast of Paris.
It was long overdue for an artist whose work had won an honourable mention in the 1888 Salon des Artistes Français, and despite policies restricting women’s participation, successfully exhibited at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair and the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Despite Claudel’s brilliance as an artist, her life was lived in the shadows of the men who surrounded her. Following a tragic later life spent in institutions, her work became a footnote in their stories for almost a century.
She showed a talent for sculpting at the age of 12
Claudel was born in Fère-en-Tardenois, a rural village between Paris and Reims, to a father working in finance and a mother who belonged to a long line of wealthy farmers.
When Claudel was 12 the family relocated to Nogent-sur-Seine, a centre for pottery production and home to several sculptors. There, she started to create models from the local clay.
Her mother told her any desires to become an artist were ‘unladylike’. Her father, however, presented some of her early work to a neighbour: the sculptor Alfred Boucher. Impressed, he became the young girl’s mentor, and following his advice the family moved to Paris in 1881. Claudel enrolled at the Académie Colarossi — a progressive art school that was one of only a handful to admit women, as well as allow them to draw naked male life models. In Paris she also shared a studio with the English sculptors Emily Fawcett, Amy Singer and Jessie Lipscomb.
She became Rodin’s pupil and lover
Boucher would visit Claudel weekly in Paris, but in the autumn of 1882 he was presented with an opportunity to travel to Florence. Not wanting to leave Claudel without a teacher, he persuaded his friend Auguste Rodin to take on his protégée as a pupil.
At the time, Rodin was on the cusp of international fame. Two years previously, the 40-year-old had been commissioned to create a set of doors for the Museum of Decorative Arts (which was never built). The job, which ultimately became his masterpiece The Gates of Hell, afforded him a large studio and several assistants.
Claudel’s exceptional talent, fiery temperament and beauty quickly seduced Rodin, and the pair become not just collaborators but lovers — despite the fact that he was more than twice her age and already in a two-decade-long relationship with another woman.
Claudel’s early work clearly bears Rodin’s influence, but she soon developed her own strong sense of lyricism and power. While his work was delicate and refined, hers was spontaneous and gestural. The critic Octave Mirbeau described Claudel at the time as ‘something unique, a revolt against nature: a woman of genius’.
Claudel’s breakthrough came in 1888
In 1886, Claudel began working on L’Abandon (Abandonment), a sculpture of an embrace inspired by the ancient Sanskrit poem Sakuntala. A surviving black-and-white photograph from the time (below) shows Claudel, wearing a creased artist’s smock and with her dark hair pulled back, deep in concentration as she smooths the work’s surface. Nearby, Jessie Lipscomb can be seen working on a sculpture of her own.
‘I have two models per day: a woman in the morning and a man in the evening,’ Claudel wrote to a friend. ‘I regularly work 12 hours a day, from seven in the morning until seven in the evening, and when I get home, it’s impossible for me to remain standing.’
The finished work became Claudel’s breakthrough. Exhibited in plaster at the 1888 Salon des Artistes Français, it won an honourable mention. The critic André Michel praised its ‘profound feeling of tenderness both chaste and passionate, an impression of quivering, of restrained ardour’.
L’Abandon was followed by La valse (The Waltz), which Claudel started around 1889. It depicts a naked couple in a pas de deux spun into a single, dizzying shape. The subject, however, was considered taboo for a woman to depict, and in an unsuccessful attempt to convince the French state to commission a public version, Claudel dressed the figures.
Claudel shaped some of Rodin’s greatest works
L’Abandon and La valse, which can both be read as allegories of the couple’s tempestuous affair, may have played a role in some of Rodin’s greatest works, for example Eternal Idol and Le Baiser (both illustrated below), which scholars have noted bear connections in the nature of their amorous compositions.
Claudel also contributed physically to many of Rodin’s works, helping sculpt details such as the hands and feet of figures on The Gates of Hell, and the heads of The Slave and Laughing Man. Yet Rodin never publicly acknowledged her assistance.
After nearly a decade, her romance with Rodin came to a bitter end
Around 1893, Claudel began to distance herself from Rodin. His earlier agreement to marry her never materialised, and she became exasperated by critics who constantly discussed her work in the context of his. As his career was reaching unparalleled heights, she endeavoured to prove her uniqueness and autonomy to the male-dominated ministries, salons and schools of fin de siècle Paris.
In 1895, Claudel finally received a commission from the French state. The result, The Age of Maturity, depicts a man being pulled away from his young lover by an older woman, and is seen as an allusion to the love triangle between Claudel, Rodin and Rodin’s long-term partner.
Upon seeing the work, Rodin was furious. Not long after, their relationship reached its final rupture, and the state dropped Claudel’s commission — possibly at Rodin’s request.
Claudel became one of the first women to enter rarefied artistic institutions during her lifetime
Over the following years, in an attempt to prove that her ideas were completely her own, Claudel became more and more reclusive.
She won the support of a Parisian dealer named Eugène Blot, and an important patron in the Countess de Maigret. She also exhibited her works Deep in Thought, Dream by the Fire and Ophelia at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. Furthermore, after women were finally permitted to do so, she successfully submitted a bronze cast of The Age of Maturity, her life-size marble Perseus and a terracotta of Alsatian to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Despite her growing recognition, the challenges she faced to be understood and recognised remained prohibitive, and she became increasingly wary and prone to bouts of anguish, during which she would sometimes destroy her work.
‘I was in such a state of anger that I took all of my wax models and threw them in the fire,’ she wrote to a friend around 1912. ‘It made quite a blaze and I warmed my feet in its glow… many more capital punishments were carried out soon after, with a pile of rubble accumulating in the middle of my studio.’
Her frustration palpable to those around her, Claudel was accused of varying degrees of behaviour deemed unseemly for a woman at the time. ‘I am scared; I don’t know what is going to happen to me. What was the point of working so hard and of being talented, to be rewarded like this?’ she once said. ‘Never a penny, tormented all my life. It is horrible; one cannot imagine it.’
She has come to be considered a misunderstood genius who was intensely passionate about her work, and whose voice was silenced by those with something to gain from her derailment.
She ceased sculpting mid-career — so her body of work is limited
In March 1913, eight days after the death of her beloved father, Claudel was committed to an asylum at the request of her brother and mother. She was only in her late forties, but would never sculpt again.
War broke out the following year, and she was moved to an asylum at Montfavet, where she remained until her death in 1943 at the age of 78. Her brother Paul, who became a successful poet and diplomat — and who by some accounts was jealous of her talent — only visited her a handful of times. Her mother never visited at all. And despite the hospital’s letters to the family stating that Claudel was fit for release, they insisted she remain confined.
The last known photograph of Claudel, which was taken in 1929 when her old friend Jessie Lipscomb visited, shows her looking forlorn, immortalising the tragedy of the second half of her life.
Her work remained in obscurity for nearly a century after her death
In the 1950s, Paul Claudel donated two versions of The Age of Maturity in plaster and bronze, Clotho in plaster and L’Abandonne in marble, to the Musée Rodin. Prior to his death in 1917, Rodin had insisted a room be dedicated to Claudel’s work inside the museum that would bear his name.
Yet it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Claudel’s reputation really began to resurface. A biographical film called Camille Claudel, starring Isabelle Adjani as Claudel and Gérard Depardieu as Rodin, was released in 1988. It was followed in 2013 by another film, Camille Claudel 1915, in which the title role was played by Juliette Binoche.
In 2012, it was announced that a museum in Nogent-sur-Seine, previously dedicated to the work of Alfred Boucher, would become the Musée Camille Claudel. It contains around half of Claudel’s 90 surviving works of art, alongside others by her contemporaries and peers — including Boucher.
Today, her work can also be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Musée d’Orsay.
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Her auction record is £5 million
Twenty works by Claudel were consigned to auction in Paris from the collection of the artist’s sister, Louise Claudel, in 2017. Believed to be the last of her major works to remain in private hands, they sold for €3.6 million collectively, with 75 per cent of the lots exceeding their high estimates.
Claudel’s auction record, however, remains unbeaten since 2013, when a bronze of La valse sold in London for £5.1 million.
‘Works by Claudel still come to market relatively infrequently, which makes it all the more exciting when an iconic and rare piece comes up,’ says Imogen Kerr, a senior specialist in Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art department. ‘Casting dates are very important, works from her lifetime are the most coveted of all, and collectors gravitate towards those that feature the greatest expressions of her most poignant subject matter: love.’