Camille Claudel – Love, Despair and Auguste Rodin

There is a popular saying that behind every great man there is a great woman. It wasn’t an exception for the legendary sculptor who is generally considered the progenitor of modern sculpture – Auguste Rodin.

The Story of Camille Claudel

Camille Claudel

Camille Claudel was a sculptress. Among the sources and inspirations for her work were Donatello, Cellini, and Greco-Roman mythology. But you must know that it was not an easy task for a woman to become an artist in the mid-19th century; she had to cope with moral prejudice, gender-related restrictions in her artistic training and the prevailing male dominance in the Ministry of Fine-Arts and the Salon juries.

And she also had to deal with a tumultuous affair with Rodin. Some believe it was the reason of her gradual descent into madness.

The Assistant

Camille always wanted to become an artist. She attended classes at the Académie Colarossi, on the Rue de la Grande Chaumière, because the most prestigious École des Beaux-Arts did not admit women at this time.

Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell, 1917, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

When Rodin received his first major commissions in the early 1880s, he gathered together a team of assistants to work alongside him in his studio. Camille turned up in the artist’s working studio as a young, 19-year-old student circa 1884. It seems that she spent most of her time on difficult pieces, such as the hands and feet of figures for monumental sculptures – including famous The Gates of Hell. She sought recognition as an independent artist at the Salon. Between 1882 and 1889, Claudel regularly exhibited busts and portraits of people close to her at the Salon des Artistes Français.

The Muse

Auguste Rodin, Mask of Camille Claudel and left hand of Pierre de Wissant, circa 1895, Musée Rodin

The two sculptors’ complicated love story has inspired many romanticized interpretations. The fact is that this intense love affair, encompassing their personal and professional lives, inspired both artists. Rodin modelled several portraits of the sculptress, including Camille Claudel with Short Hair and Mask of Camille Claudel. I Am Beautiful and Eternal Springtime, originally intended for The Gates of Hell, are the proof of how passionately Rodin felt about Camille.

The Second One

Camille Claudel, La Valse [The Waltz], 1895, Paris, Musée Rodin

But there was one problem. Rodin had been in a relationship with Rose Beuret for the past 20 years, whom he didn’t want to leave. Claudel never lived with Rodin, and from time to time she herself felt the need to keep some distance between them. For example, when Claudel returned from a refuge in England, Rodin was so happy to see her again that he signed an extraordinary “contract” in which he promised that she would be his only pupil and swore to be faithful to her.

In 1892, after having had an abortion, Claudel ended the intimate aspect of her relationship with Rodin, although they saw each other regularly until 1898.

The Artist

Claudel could not get the funding to get many of her daring ideas realized due to their sexual element, and thus she was forced to either depend on Rodin or collaborate with him and let him get the credit as the lionized figure of French sculptures. Rodin obviously signed a number of her works. She also depended on him financially since after her wealthy, loving father died, her mother and brother who were suspicious of her lifestyle kept the money and let her wander around the streets dressed in beggars’ clothes.

Camille Claudel, Maturity, 1899 Musée d’Orsay

After the break between Camille Claudel and Rodin, the latter tried to help Camille indirectly and obtained a state commission for her from the Director of Fine Arts. Maturity was commissioned in 1895, and exhibited in 1899, but the bronze version was never ordered, and Claudel did not deliver the plaster model. It was Captain Tissier who finally commissioned the first bronze in 1902. After Rodin saw The Age of Maturity for the first time in 1899, he reacted with shock and anger, and suddenly stopped his support for Claudel completely. He even might have put pressure on the ministry of fine arts to cancel the funding for the bronze commission.

The group evokes Rodin’s hesitation between Rose, who finally wins the race, and Camille who is reaching forward to stop him from leaving her. The details of her personal story apart, Camille produced a thought-provoking symbolic work about human relationships.

The End

After 1905 Claudel appeared to be mentally ill. She destroyed many of her statues, went missing for long periods of time, exhibited signs of paranoia and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She accused Rodin of stealing her ideas and of leading a conspiracy to kill her. Her family closed her in an asylum. Doctors tried to convince them that she shouldn’t have stayed in such an institution, but they still kept her there. The hospital staff regularly proposed to Camille’s mother and brother that Claudel could have been released, but they adamantly refused each time.

Camille Claudel, l L’Abandon, 1905, private collection

Camille Claudel died on 19 October 1943, after having lived 30 years in the asylum. In September 1943 her brother Paul had been informed of his sister’s terminal illness and with some difficulty he crossed Occupied France to see her but was neither present at her death nor at her funeral. Her body was interred in the cemetery of Monfavet. Her remains were buried in a communal grave at the asylum.

Auguste Rodin with his companion Rose Beuret in the Garden of his Villa at Meudon from L’Illustration magazine 1916

How about Rodin? After fifty-three years into their relationship, he married Rose Beuret. The wedding was 29 January 1917, and Beuret died two weeks later. Rodin himself was ill that year; in January, he suffered weakness from influenza, and he soon died. 

Until January 15, 2017 the National Museum in Krakow presents the exhibition “Rodin/Dunikowski. Visions of Women“. On the exhibition, in addition to the works created by the two great sculptors also portraits of Rodin made by Camille Claudel can be seen.

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