La sirène, also known as La joueuse de flûte, is one of the most successful compositions of Camille Claudel, the legendary sculptress from late nineteenth-century Paris and sometime lover of Auguste Rodin. Originally conceived around 1904 and exhibited in 1905, the work was intended to be cast in an edition of 30, yet only six were in fact created. Eugène Blot, her friend who also oversaw the editions of her works, would later refer in a letter to 'La sirène which she loved particularly' (Blot, quoted in R.-M. Paris & A. de La Chapelle, L'oeuvre de Camille Claude, Catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1991, p. 201).
This was one of the last original compositions that Claudel created before her precarious mental state declined, eventually leading to her incarceration in 1913 - last year, this became the subject of a movie, Camille Claudel 1915, with an acclaimed performance by Juliette Binoche in the title role. This was a marked contrast to a previous depiction of her in an eponymous film in which she was played by Isabelle Adjani opposite Gérard Depardieu.
Claudel's relationship with Rodin had in part doubtless helped to exacerbate some of her mental health problems. Certainly, he was a source of fixation for her in later years. Intriguingly, La sirène, in both its subject and its appearance, seems to echo one of Claudel's most celebrated works from the happier years of that relationship, La valse. That work, originally created in 1892 and then in another version in 1895, showed a couple swirling in a musical embrace. That combination of sensuality and musicality is perfectly encapsulated in the sinuous siren, accentuated by the drapery that flows around her. Intriguingly, the surface of the figure's skin has none of the cragginess or turbulence that characterised some of her work during the height of her relationship with Rodin. Instead, it is smooth and glistening, adding to the sense of fluidity so apt in the sculpture of a siren; this is complemented by the undulations of the drapery. While there are compositional similarities between La valse and La sirène, there is also a key contrast: here, instead of an embrace showing the full togetherness of that profoundly human dance, the solitary, seductive siren plays her flute atop her perch, a lure for the passing mariners, tempting them into disaster. One wonders if Claudel's own relationship with Rodin did not inform this subject matter, and also the sculptress' own fondness for it.