Caught in a trance-like state as they lose themselves in the intoxicating rhythms of the dance, the couple at the heart of Camille Claudel’s iconic La valse (The Waltz) appear to embody the heady abandon of youthful, passionate love which had so powerfully struck the artist when she became involved with Auguste Rodin. Nestled against the man’s shoulder, the woman’s body strikes an elegant, curving line as she melts into the crook of her partner’s arm, her whole body submitting to the flow of movement as he spins her around the floor. The man, pivoting on his right leg as he lifts his left foot to begin a new step, turns his head towards the woman, as if he is about to whisper in her ear, or plant a kiss on her exposed neck. Encircling their feet in the flowing drapery of the woman’s sheath-like skirt, Claudel emphasises the vertiginous, swirling movement of the couple as they surrender themselves to the dance. Capturing the intimacy of the scene, from the proximity of their bodies as they cling to one another, to the tender expressions on their faces, Claudel conjures a romantic, almost dream-like scene in which the two figures are completely lost in the moment.
The sculpture was originally conceived in 1889, just as Claudel was beginning to assert her artistic independence from Rodin after six years as his apprentice and collaborator. From their very first association, Claudel’s artistic reputation had been inextricably intertwined with that of her master, a position she grew increasingly frustrated by as their relationship developed. Eager to assert her autonomy, Claudel sought to create works which were fundamentally different from Rodin’s aesthetic, and began to focus on lending her sculptures a new, heightened expressivity. This can be seen most clearly in La valse, with the use of sinuous, complex lines and the asymmetrical balance of weight in the two forms, which imbues the group with a dynamic, swirling energy. To enhance the elegance of their movements, Claudel did not hesitate to alter the proportions of her figures, shortening or lengthening limbs to create an illusion of continuity and roundness, as in the subtle elongation of the woman’s right forearm as she reaches out towards her partner’s hand. As they lean dramatically to one side, their combined weight leaves them balancing precariously on one foot, giving the impression that they may tip over and tumble to the ground at any moment, a danger they remain oblivious to as they succumb to the romance of the dance.
The success of La valse led Claudel to petition the Ministry of Fine Arts to fund a marble version of the composition, as she believed strongly that a sculpture was never fully realised without being translated into a more permanent medium. She was an outstanding marble sculptor, masterfully cutting the stone herself and fine-polishing it with the bone of a lamb’s leg to achieve a smooth, almost glass-like finish that stood in sharp contrast to the visceral, raw treatment of the material in Rodin’s sculptures. The critic Armand Dayot, sent to inspect the sculpture on the Ministry’s behalf, enthusiastically praised the modelling of the figures, writing in his report: ‘All the details of this group are of a perfect virtuosity … Rodin himself would not have rendered with more art and conscience the quivering life in the muscles and even the trembling of the skin’ (Dayot, quoted in Camille Claudel and Rodin: Fateful Encounter, exh. cat., Québec, 2005, p. 110). However, he was shocked at the unabashed eroticism of the composition, particularly in light of the fact that it had been conceived by a female artist, and advised Claudel to add drapery to conceal the nudity of the two figures and enhance the lightness of movement in the sculpture. Although Claudel resisted the suggestion at first, she acceded, spending months on drapery studies before adding a swirl of material around the lower half of the female figure, which then flowed in a sweeping arc upwards, enveloping dancers’ heads in a cloud of fabric. The adjusted composition became a whirlwind of swirling motion, which now centred on the sinuous, sweeping lines of the drapery.
After months working on the revisions, Claudel invited Dayot to return to view the new composition in December 1892. This time, the inspector was bowled over by the virtuosity of Claudel’s handling of movement, and proclaimed his support for a state commission whole-heartedly. ‘Mlle Claudel wanted to sacrifice the least nudity possible,’ he wrote, ‘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. Mlle Claudel is an artist of very great talent’ (Dayot, quoted in ibid, p. 113). Despite Dayot’s impassioned recommendation the Minister of Fine Arts, Henri Roujon, denied the commission, apparently on the personal belief that the subject remained too risqué. Although Rodin attempted to intercede on her behalf, Claudel’s dreams of an official state commission were dashed. However, the official objection did not prevent La valse from earning significant critical acclaim when Claudel exhibited it at the 1893 Salon. Dayot, still enamoured with the sculpture, advised the founder Siot-Decauville to acquire the plaster, which was subsequently used to produce a single bronze cast in the months after the Salon closed.
In circa 1895, Claudel conceived a third version to the sculpture, removing the swirl of drapery that enveloped the figures’ heads, so as to reveal their faces and call greater attention to the tender connection between the pair. Pleased with the results, Claudel produced a number of plaster examples of this new version between 1895 and 1898, each with subtle modifications and touches added by the artist herself so as not to impinge on Siot-Decauville’s reproduction rights, which she presented to close friends such as Claude Debussy, Robert Godet and Frits Thaulow. In 1900, Siot-Decauville sold the reproduction rights to Eugène Blot, who, with Claudel’s blessing produced an edition of twenty-five bronze casts of the unveiled group, of which the present sculpture is number twelve.