The Genius of Camille Claudel

An hour by train from Paris, and a 5 minute walk from the train station in Nogent-sur-Seine, is the new Musée Camille Claudel.

Musée Camille Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, designed by Adelfo Scaranello

The museum was founded in 1902 with donations from Paul Dubois (1829–1905) and Alfred Boucher (1850–1934), two accomplished sculptors who lived and worked in Nogent-sur-Seine. In 2013, the municipality decided to relocate and rename the museum from Musée Dubois-Boucher to Musée Camille Claudel in honour of Claudel, and to focus the new display around 43 pieces by the artist, many of which were acquired in 2008 from Reine-Marie Paris, the artist’s great-niece and biographer.

This is the largest public collection of works by Claudel; it is shown here alongside more than 150 works by other 19th century sculptors, a combination of the municipal museum’s existing holdings, and pieces on long-term loan from 15 other French institutions. The Claudel family lived in Nogent-sur-Seine, a small town south-east of Paris, for only three years during Camille’s adolescence. In a sense, the Musée Camille Claudel is unlike other museums set in ‘birthplace’ towns, where the landscape, people and economy relate to an artist’s early work: the Musée Matisse in the weaving town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis, for example, or the Musée Courbet in Ornans, in the farming and riverfishing Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region.

The Musée Camille Claudel is designed by Adelfo Scaranello, who has inserted simple, light-filled rooms into the brick shell of the former home of the Claudel family, and designed an extension. The upper floor boasts a panoramic view of the attractive small town, its wealth derived from processing cereals and making sophisticated fire-fighting equipment as well as from the nuclear power plant, the towers of which are visible in the distance. The original collection contains enormous plasters, some rather bland, that have subjects related to historical, allegorical and classical themes – such as Gabriel Jules Thomas’s Man Fighting a Serpent (1893) and Paul Dubois’s Equestrian Statue of Joan of Arc (1889). Claudel’s more intense work is well-placed in five modest-scaled galleries, in which the emphasis is on the evolution of her skills and voice, and on her variations of a single model in terracotta, bronze, marble, and onyx. These displays of her work are wisely not encumbered by too much biographical information, since this would defeat the purpose of understanding the artist’s legacy in its own terms.

Camille Claudel in 1884 (20 years old)

Born in 1864, Claudel began modelling as a young girl and, at her father’s request, she was given occasional tutorials by Boucher. When she moved to Paris, along with her mother and siblings, Claudel attended art classes at the Académie Colarossi, a studio run by an Italian sculptor. This private way of studying art was the only way open to women, since they were denied access to the École des Beaux-Arts, the ultimate goal being the Prix de Rome. Claudel rented a studio for herself at 117 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, which she shared with three English women artists: Amy Singer, Emily Fawcett and Jessie Lipscomb. On occasion, Boucher would visit the young women to offer his advice. He continued to visit her until he went to Rome in 1882, at which point he asked Rodin to take his place.

Camille Claudel and Jessie Lipscomb in their studio, 117 de la rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris, 1887

Claudel met Rodin, probably in 1883, when he was working in a studio at 182, rue de l’Université. Camille soon left her studio to become an habitué of Rodin’s. Camille the habitué soon became Camille the student, the mode, the collaborator, the composer, the companion, the lover, the mistress and the muse of Rodin. After a visit to the Salon in early 1883, the painter Léon Lhermitte wrote to Rodin: ‘It was with great pleasure that I saw Mlle Claudel’s figure of a man. It reflects the greatest credit on your teaching.’

Claudel’s relationship with Rodin developed quickly and they embarked on an intense affair that lasted for more than 10 years. The complex story of how the pair overlapped in this period – both personally and professionally – and the years after, is sympathetically told in Claudel & Rodin: Fateful Encounter, the well-researched catalogue to the touring exhibition organised by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and the Musée Rodin in 2005–06. As sculptors, their lives were conditioned by the need to show new work in the annual Salon, to finance an expensive vocation by attracting potential buyers and good critical notices, and to endure the frustrations of protracted negotiations and cancelled or rejected commissions with fortitude and self-belief. From the research presented in this, and other publications, we can be certain that Rodin was beside himself with love. Camille was wilful, possessive and jealous, demanding that he sign a bizarre contract in October 1886; the conditions included a promise to renounce other women, including favourite models and prospective students, to bring her along on his travels, and to marry her in 1887. In return she agreed to receive him in her studio four times a month.

From the outset, Claudel absorbed the method Rodin advocated, to ‘model solely by profiles’ and to pay close attention to the individual model as they moved freely. Adèle Abbruzzesi, one of Rodin’s favourite models, posed in a squatting position, head turned, hand on breast, for his radical work Crouching Woman (c. 1881–82) – which is displayed in the museum next to Claudel’s work of the same name from around 1884–85. Octave Mirbeau referred to Rodin’s cast as ‘the frog’; Claudel’s work, however, is more realistic and believable. The young figure is fuller, and the breasts drop with gravity as she shields her bowed head with her arm. It is just as much a sculptural breakthrough as Rodin’s Crouching Woman.

Camille Claudel, Crouching Woman (c. 1884–85)
Auguste Rodin, Crouching Woman (c. 1881–82)
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC

The photograph taken in April 1887 by the fiancé of a fellow pupil (above) shows Claudel working on the large standing sculpture, Sakountala, and it suggests something of her competitive spirit. The two-person group loosely describes the final scene in the story by a Sanskrit poet, in which Prince Douchanta decides not to marry the maiden Sakountala, and his ensuing regret and return. The male figure kneels to embrace the female and ask forgiveness; Claudel’s first title was L’Abandon (The Abandonment). The contact between the couple seems sweaty and tense, and more human compared to Rodin’s lyrical couples in Eternal Idol and Fugit Amor, dating to the same period.

Camille Claudel, L’Abandon (The Abandonment) (c. 1886–1905)

One interpretation of Claudel’s masterpiece L’Âge mûr (The Age of Maturity), begun in 1893, is that it represents a male figure being drawn away by a personification of old age, while simultaneously being held back by a figure of youth. But, when linked to a group of angry drawings by Camille, one of which caricatures Rose Beuret, Rodin’s long-term companion, as a witch with a broom, and another showing her glued by her backside to Rodin, the three-figure sculpture, so disturbing and unforgettable, clearly seems autobiographical. Beuret is wrapped in Rodin’s embrace, and Claudel is on her knees, begging him to choose her. The bronze version includes a sweeping backdrop that goes from undergrowth to canopy, fashioned with deep recesses; it was described by the artist’s brother, Paul Claudel, as related to ‘the Wagnerian melopoeia’ – an example of how he projected his own poetic sensibility on to her work while overlooking its message of desperation. The young female figure is known as The Implorer; Claudel’s variation of the older woman, Clotho (1893), loops skeins of stringy hair around her emaciated body in an image that invites parallels with Donatello’s wooden Mary Magdalene (c. 1455).

Camille Claudel, L’Âge mûr (The Age of Maturity) (1890–1907)

Claudel felt that there was much to be learned in Rodin’s studio. And by all accounts, she worked long and hard and not just on beginner’s exercises, but on works of great quality. What became intolerable to Claudel was the fact that Rodin continued to exploit her, or. as she said in a letter to her brother in 1907, “uses me in all sorts of ways”. The conflict between her and Rose Beuret continued, but more telling, perhaps, was the anger or frustration she felt over the fact that her vision of art as expression of something silent in nature did not coincide with Rodin’s vision. By 1888, the relationship between Claudel and Rodin had already deteriorated; leading to their final separation in 1893.

During these same years, Claudel met the young composer Claude Debussy and she realised that she was not alone in her preoccupation with the mysterious and the unspoken. With Debussy, Camille acquired a taste for sonatas in solitude, in utter quiet. Consequently, Camille Claudel began to distance herself from Rodin; she began to see her art more and more as antithetical to the art of Rodin. She saw her art as an art of the unspoken, of inner solitude, of intimacy, of the ideal of beauty and truth that differed from the art of Rodin. No words can express more clearly the essence of Claudel’s art at this time and, by implication, point to its difference with Rodin’s art, than the words of Debussy himself:

In the works sculpted by Camille Claudel there is a fixed kind of beauty that her gestures already sketched.. This kind of beauty realised by a woman… has plastic eloquence of an extraordinary power blended with a deep accent of intimacy, as an echo of secret or familiar emotions sprung from a strong interior where they can sing at mid-voice.

Camille Claudel, La Valse (The Waltz) (1889–before 1895)

In the late 1890s Claudel changed artistic direction in her experiments with groups of small-scale figures placed within sculptural environments, which were inspired by watching people on the street or in a train carriage. The Gossips (1893–1905) depicts an animated huddle of four nude yet perfectly coiffured women, while the introspective Deep Thought (c. 1898), sees an ordinary woman wearing a long dress kneel before a fireplace, her arms raised to the mantelpiece. Combining bronze and marble, one version features logs in the hearth, the other leaves the setting empty. Addressing mental frailty from a female perspective, as so many of her works do, marks Claudel’s art as unusually courageous. This candour, and the quality of her art, have rightly earned her dedicated fans, just as Frida Kahlo’s paintings have by communicating her physical pain and similar loneliness.

Claudel’s creativity came to an end when she was 41, following years of growing paranoia. Persée et la Gorgone (Perseus and the Gorgon) (1902), commissioned by Countess Arthur de Maigret and carved by François Pompon, is a large marble endowed by Claudel with frightening neoclassical overtones; one assumes that the raised trophy head of Medusa is a self-portrait. By this point in her career, Claudel was convinced that she was being persecuted, especially by Rodin; in her letters she complains of his ‘malevolent hand working behind the scenes to divest me of all my friendships’. Rodin, like her parents and supporters – among them Mathias Morhardt and Eugène Blot – sent Claudel regular stipends to help ward off impoverishment and continually tried to arrange sales and opportunities for her to show her work. Rodin wanted a room devoted to Claudel’s work in the future Musée Rodin, and one eventually opened in 1952.

Camille Claudel, Persée et la Gorgone (c. 1897–1902)

The last portrait Claudel made was of her younger brother Paul, a writer and diplomat. Paul Claudel à 37 ans (1905) captures his unwavering look; by this point he was a public figure who disapproved of his sister’s affair.

Camille Claudel, Paul Claudel à 37 ans (1905)

Camille’s father died on March 2, 1913. As soon as this last support was gone, the Claudel family quickly moved to have Camille committed. On March 10 Camille was forcibly interned in an asylum near Paris. Her diagnosis was paranoid psychosis. Some of her supporters voiced objections, but these came to naught. When the war began Camille was transferred to the Montdevergues asylum in the south of France, where she remained until she died in 1943.

In 1929, Camille’s old friend and colleague, Jessie Lipscomb, who had returned to England and married, found out where Camille was hospitalized. She and her husband then visited her in Montdevergues. Jessie insisted after their reunion that Camille had shown no signs of madness. Jessie’s, husband, William Elborne, took two photographs. One shows Camille alone, seated with her arms folded. The other shows Camille and Jessie seated together.

With her arms folded around herself, Camille does not seem to see Jessie’s hand softly reaching out to her. The long years of isolation have taken their toll; Camille looks empty and withdrawn.

Social isolation is probably the worst approach to treating paranoia. The asylum in Montdevergues did not provide adequate or any treatment. So Camille Claudel lived in a veritable hell.

Camille’s rejection by her family reflected the way mental disorders were considered at the time – mad relatives were hidden away from society and ignored. Camille’s mother was so scandalized by her daughter’s behaviour and so constrained by her rigid religion that she never once visited her in hospital. Louise also could not bring herself to have anything to do with her wayward sister. Paul, despite their closeness as children and despite his enthusiasm for her art, had little to do with Camille after she was admitted to Montdevergues. He visited her only a few times, and refused all of her requests to be released or transferred closer to the family.

In a photograph taken in 1951, the elderly Paul Claudel holds onto a bust Camille made of him when he was young. The photograph is imbued with regret. Yet it is not clear whether it is for himself or his sister.

My guess is that his regret is for himself.

One of the most insightful impressions of Camille is a plaster cast by Rodin, aptly entitled The Farewell, created the year before their final separation. Both the hands and the face are exquisitely moulded. The sculpture is ambiguous. Are the hands reaching up to stop the tears, to shut out the world, or to gather something in?

Based on articles in the Apollo Magazine and on Creature and Creator.

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