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How Camille Claudel stepped out of Rodin's shadow

27 March 2017

A new museum reappraises the prodigious talent of Camille Claudel. A sculptor, and Rodin’s lover, Claudel’s career tragically ended with a 30-year confinement in a psychiatric hospital. WILLIAM COOK visits Musee Camille Claudel to celebrate a reputation restored.

Detail: L’Abandon, Camille Claudel, 1886-1905. © Musée Camille Claudel, photo Marco Illuminati.

Here in the heart of the French countryside, 100km south east of Paris, the inhabitants of Nogent-sur-Seine are welcoming home a prodigal daughter.

Camille Claudel died in a lunatic asylum in 1943, alone and forgotten. Few people remembered that in her youth, she’d been regarded as the greatest sculptress of her generation. By the time she died, aged 78, amid the chaos and carnage of the Second World War, she’d become an obscure footnote in art history, merely remembered (if at all) as the muse and mistress of Auguste Rodin.

After the war Claudel’s work was ignored, while Rodin remained a household name

After the war Claudel’s work was ignored, while Rodin remained a household name. Yet lately something rather wonderful has happened – she’s been rediscovered, not only as Rodin’s model or his bedfellow but as an important artist in her own right.

First, the Rodin Museum in Paris started paying more attention to her work, then in 2003 Nogent-sur-Seine held its own Camille Claudel exhibition.

For a quiet little town of just 6,000 inhabitants this was an audacious scheme, but the show was a huge hit, attracting 40,000 visitors. Inspired by this success, Nogent-sur-Seine set about building a brand new museum, devoted to this neglected sculptor. As this splendid gallery opens, in the house where she became an artist, it feels as if Camille has finally come home.

Camille Claudel was born in 1864, about 100km north of here, in a town called Fere-en-Tardenois. Her father, Louis-Prosper Claudel, was a civil servant. In 1876 he was transferred to Nogent-sur-Seine, inhabiting this handsome house which is now the Musee Camille Claudel. It was here, aged just twelve, that his eldest daughter started making sculptures from local clay.

Camille was untaught, yet her work showed enormous promise. To his credit, Louis-Prosper took his daughter’s vocation seriously. He sought the advice of an eminent local sculptor, Alfred Boucher, who confirmed her nascent talent. For five years she sculpted here, making statues of biblical characters like David and Goliath, and modern figures like Napoleon and Bismarck. When Camille’s mother took her younger brother Paul to Paris to study, Camille went too and took sculpture classes there. Boucher came by each week to inspect her work, and recommended her to his friend, Rodin.

Rodin was impressed by Camille’s work, but he was also enamoured by her beauty, and her dynamic personality. He hired her as his assistant. She soon became his lover too. She was only seventeen, he was already in his forties. Inevitably, their liaison caused quite a stir.

However it wasn’t just a sexual thing. They really cared about each other, and the work they did together was profound. Their styles were strikingly similar, and most art historians have assumed this was because he inspired her. Yet as this display shows, Camille wasn’t merely imitating Rodin. Incredibly, it may even have been the other way around.

For twelve years Rodin and Camille lived and worked together, producing some of the best work of both their careers. However it was their love life that people talked about, and Camille paid a higher price for this tittle-tattle than Rodin.

For twelve years Rodin and Camille lived and worked together, producing some of the best work of both their careers

Rodin did his best to help her. He introduced her to critics and collectors, and helped her get commissions, but regardless of the work she made, she couldn’t escape his shadow.

“She was always seen as a pupil of Rodin,” explains the museum’s curator, Cecile Bertran. “It was a negation of her independence.” In 1893 she broke up with him. She wanted to be recognised in her own right, not just as Rodin’s girlfriend.

Throughout her thirties and forties, she strived to make her own way as an artist. “She forced herself to make something different,” says Cecile. Her style became very different from Rodin’s, even deliberately so. Yet none of her later work quite matched the sculptures she made in her twenties, when she was with Rodin. Her solo career never quite took off, and the strain began to tell.

She became increasingly reclusive and paranoid. She became convinced that Rodin was conspiring to thwart her. This was utterly untrue, but you can see why she felt hard done by. She’d given Rodin her best years, her child bearing years. Now, in the eyes of this chauvinistic society, she was already an old maid.

In 1913, after her father died, her mother put her in an asylum. Today this seems extraordinary, but talented and unconventional women have often been dismissed as crazy. Was she mad? She was eccentric and delusional, but it’s hard to believe a difficult, successful man would have been treated this way.

Camille spent the next thirty years in the asylum. Her doctors recommended she be released, but her mother refused. After her mother died, her brother Paul (a renowned writer) maintained this veto. She remained locked away until she died. During these thirty years, half her adult life, she made no sculpture. Photographed in her youth, she looked so pretty and vivacious. In her old age, she looks remote and withdrawn.

The Camille Claudel Museum is full of wonderful artworks, but for me two sculptures stand out.

One is her bust of Rodin - so powerful, like an Old Testament prophet. Beside it is a more delicate statue, Young Woman with Closed Eyes. A self-portrait? Probably not, but there’s something intensely autobiographical about it. It reminds me of something Rodin said, looking back on the twelve years they spent together: “I told her where she could find gold, but the gold she found was her own.”

Femme accroupie, Camille Claudel, 1884-1885. © Musée Camille Claudel, photo Marco Illuminati.
La Petite Châtelaine, Camille Claudel, 1892-1893. © Musée Camille Claudel, photo Marco Illuminati.
Camille Claudel in 1884, aged 19. Image: GL Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.
A bust of Auguste Rodin, by Camille Claudel, 1888-1898. © Musée Camille Claudel, photo Marco Illuminati.
Movie poster for the 1990 French film based on the life of Claudel. A second film, Camille Claudel 1915, starring Juliette Binoche, was made in 2013.
Bust: Paul Claudel à 37 ans, 1905-1913, Camille Claudel. Paul, Camille's brother, committed her to a psychiatric hospital in 1913. She remained there for 30 years until her death. © Musée Camille Claudel, photo Marco Illuminati.
Tête de jeune fille au chignon, Camille Claudel, 1886. © Musée Camille Claudel, photo Marco Illuminati.

The Musee Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine opens on 26 March 2017.

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