(December 8, 1864 – October 19, 1943)
French sculptor and graphic artist.
Camille Claudel was born in northern France, the second child of a family of farmers and gentry. Her father, Louis Prosper, dealt in mortgages and bank transactions. Her mother came from a family of Catholic farmers and priests. The family moved to Villeneuve-sur-Fère while Camille was still a baby. Her younger brother Paul Claudel was born there in 1868. Subsequently Camille’s family moved many more times, although they continued to spend summers in Villeneuve-sur-Fère, where the stark landscape of that region made a deep impression on the children. Camille moved with her mother, brother and younger sister to the Montparnasse area of Paris in 1881, her father having to remain behind, working to support them.
Fascinated with stone and soil as a child, as a young woman she studied at the Académie Colarossi with sculptor Alfred Boucher. In 1882, she rented a workshop with other young women, mostly English, including Jessie Lipscomb.
After having taught Camille for over three years, her mentor, Boucher, moved to Florence. He asked Auguste Rodin to take over the instruction of his pupils. This is how Rodin and Claudel met and their tumultuous, passionate relationship began.
She started working in Rodin’s workshop around 1884. Camille became a source of inspiration, his model, his confidante and lover. She never lived with Rodin, who was reluctant to end his 20-year relationship with his lover, Rose Beuret. Knowledge of the affair agitated Camille’s mother, who never completely agreed with Camille’s involvement in the arts. As a consequence, Camille left the family house.
A letter from Rodin to Camille Claudel illustrated that by the fall of 1883, Rodin and Camille were lovers. He was two decades older than she. Camille was 18 years old.
The artist Rodin writes to his “ferocious friend”~
“This morning I ran around (for hours) to all our spots without finding you. Death would be sweeter! And how long is my agony. Why didn’t you wait for me in the atelier, where are you going? (…) In a single instant I feel your terrible force. Have pity, mean girl. I can’t go on. I can’t go another day without seeing you. Atrocious madness, it’s the end, I won’t be able to work anymore. Malevolent goddess, and yet I love you furiously… . (…) Let me see you every day, which would be a good idea and might make me better, for only you can save me with your generosity. Don’t let this slow and hideous sickness overtake my intelligence, the ardened and pure love I have for you – in short, have pity, my beloved, and you will be rewarded.
In 1892, after an unwanted abortion, Camille ended her love affair with Rodin although they saw each other regularly until 1898.
It would be a mistake to assume that her reputation has survived simply because of her once notorious association with Rodin. The novelist and art critic Octave Mirbeau described her as:
A revolt against nature; a woman genius
Her early work is similar to Rodin’s in spirit, but shows an imagination and lyricism quite her own. Her onyx and bronze small-scale Wave (1897) was a conscious break in style with her Rodin period. Beginning in 1903, she exhibited her works at the Salon des Artistes Français or at the Salon d’Automne.
In the early years of the 20th Century, she had patrons, dealers, and commercial success. Composer Claude Debussy kept a copy of Camille’s La Valse on his mantel.
After 1905 Claudel was rumored to be mentally ill. She destroyed many of her statues, disappeared for long periods of time and exhibited signs of paranoia. She was diagnosed as having schizophrenia. She accused Rodin of stealing her ideas and of leading a conspiracy to kill her. After the wedding of her brother, Paul (who had supported her), she lived secluded in her workshop.
Her father tried to help her, supporting her financially. When he died in 1913, Camille was not informed of his death. A week later, on 10 March 1913, her brother admitted her to a psychiatric hospital. The form read that she had been “voluntarily” committed, although her admission was signed by a doctor and her brother. There are records to show that while she did have mental outbursts, she was clear-headed while working on her art. Doctors tried to convince the family that she need not be in the institution, but they disagreed and kept her there.
For a while, the press accused her family of committing a sculptor of genius. Her mother forbade her to receive mail from anyone other than her brother. The hospital staff regularly proposed to her family that Camille be released, but her mother adamantly refused. In June 1920, physician Dr. Brunet sent a letter advising her mother to try to reintegrate her daughter into the family environment. Again her family refused.
Camille’s mother and sister never visited her in the asylum and even refused to permit her to be released into the family’s custody when the staff psychiatrists recommended it. Paul Claudel visited her every few years, though he referred to her in the past tense.
Jessie Lipscomb and her husband visited, convinced “it was not true that she was insane.” Morhardt ventured the opinion that she had been betrayed by her family. ‘Paul Claudel is a simpleton. When one has a sister who is a genius one doesn’t abandon her. But he always thought that he was the one who had the genius.'”
Grunfeld writes: “One day in the last year of his life Rodin paused meditatively before a terra cotta bust of Camille in the Museé Rodin. ‘She’s shut up at Ville-Evrard,’ a visitor said. Rodin reacted as though he had been stung. ‘You could not have touched on a more painful subject!'”
Camille Claudel died on 19 October 1943, having lived 30 years in the asylum. She never received a visit from her mother or sister. Her body was interred in the cemetery of Monfavet. No one from the family attended the ceremony only a few members from the hospital staff. Later her remains were buried in a communal grave as the body was never claimed by her family.
A dramatization of Camille Claudel as she is taken away to the asylum where she would spend the rest of her life.
“There is always something missing that torments me.”
from a letter written in 1886 to Auguste Rodin, quoted on a plaque at 19 Quai de Bourbon, Paris where Claudel lived and worked from 1899 to 1913.
I suspect her story is one of many women who, over the centuries have been both the muse and the maker of great art. Lost in the shadows of time to be found years too late.