Camille Claudel - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Camille Claudel
Camille Claudel was born in 1864 in Fère-en-Tardenois, Aisne, France. Her father made a living from mortgage dealings and bank transactions, and her mother came from a long line of wealthy Catholic farmers. The family moved from place to place, one of which was Villeneuve-sur-Fère, which made a deep impression on Claudel and the family would continue to spend summers there even after moving on. In 1927, Claudel wrote of Villeneuve to her younger brother, the poet Paul Claudel, "What joy if I could find myself at Villeneuve again! This beautiful Villeneuve unlike anything on earth!". It seems that the children enjoyed the landscape and atmosphere of this countryside home in particular, and may have contributed to Claudel's particular love of nature, and literally for the earth. When the family moved to live for three years at Nogent-sur-Seine - at which time Claudel was 12 - she was already working with clay. Her early work attracted the attention of the already successful sculptor Alfred Boucher, who advised her father to encourage his daughter's artistic career. In response to such advice, in 1882, along with her mother, Paul and her younger sister, Louise, Camille Claudel moved to the Montparnasse neighbourhood of Paris while her father continued to work elsewhere and supported the family from afar.
At the time, very few spaces were open for women to study art. The official École des Beaux-Arts remained exclusively for men until 1897. Thus, Claudel studied sculpture at the more forward thinking, Académie Colarossi, where promising female artists were not only admitted, but where they were also (highly controversially) permitted to draw from the male nude. With her confidence bolstered, in 1882 Claudel rented her own studio space, which she shared with three British sculptors Jessie Lipscomb, Amy Page, and Emily Fawcett.
Following her earlier encounter with Alfred Boucher, once in Paris, he became Claudel's mentor and they established a strong and productive student-teacher relationship. Claudel sculpted his bust, and he depicted her in the very tender piece, Camille Claudel lisant (1882). Boucher's sculpture powerfully reveals that Claudel was not a typical woman for her era. Not only did she ambitiously carve and model her own highly original works of art, she also and perhaps more significantly, made those around her 'see' differently. While Boucher would usually present the classic female body, languid, on offer, and seductively emerging from stone, his depiction of Claudel stands out as a radical exception. Claudel sits clothed, with a book in hand, and with her eyes closed, not in erotic reverie this time but instead committed to deep thought and self-development.
Having won the Grand Prix du Salon, unfortunately for Claudel, Boucher soon left Paris for Italy. Upon his departure, he asked Auguste Rodin to become the tutor for his group of women pupils. At the time, Rodin was forty-three years old with a strong reputation as a sculptor. Claudel quickly became not only one of his pupils, but also his muse and lover, starting to work in his workshop in 1883. Whilst her father continued to support her talent and life choices, the rest of her family condemned her henceforth and forced her to leave the family home. In 1884, Claudel became one of Rodin's official studio assistants and worked, somewhat ironically, on both The Kiss (1882) and on The Gates of Hell (1880-1890) with her lover (the two also happen to be some of Rodin's greatest masterpieces). Rodin was always open about his belief in Claudel's talent, originality, and creative genius. He talked of her as his best assistant but refused to end his relationship with Rose Beuret to be with her exclusively in romance. Ensnared by Rodin's 'double life', Claudel carried a rage and jealousy surrounding the situation that would later grow into paranoia.
Alongside becoming Rodin's muse and the source for many of his portraits and allegories, her own work was getting stronger and she became a great influence on Rodin stylistically. Her 1886 sculpture, Shakuntala, won a Salon Prize. Her daring use of the nude combined with strong psychological message had started to attract attention from art critics.
Meanwhile however, her relationship with Rodin was falling apart as he refused to separate from Beuret and marry her. By 1892, after an almost 10 year affair, the couple officially parted and the separation inalterably shifted the tone of Claudel's art, always inseparable from her life. Works that followed, for example Clotho (1893) and Maturity (1895), display sorrow emotionally, but also in practical terms, they are no longer supported by the team and finances that she previously had access to through Rodin's studio. Rodin did attempt to continue to help to further Claudel's career beyond their time as lovers, but Claudel felt such strong resentment and mistrust towards Rodin by this time that she refused any help. She labelled Rodin as a career saboteur and referred to him as "The Ferret" in letters, who alongside the "bande à Rodin" had caused her great harm. Despite growing unhappiness, Claudel experienced a period of productive creativity. Inspired by everyday reality, Art Nouveau decorative curves, and memorable images from Ukiyo-e Japanese prints she made some of her most original works. Her experiments with different materials and combination of marble and bronze were unprecedented and attracted the financial support of the Comtesse de Maigret in 1897.
Claudel had been working and living alone in her studio on the île St-Louis since 1899 and despite support from the Comtesse de Maigret, continued to have financial difficulties. It is recorded that Rodin paid her rent in 1904 and continued to search for commissions for her. From 1905 onwards, Claudel's mental health appeared to be deteriorating, as she sporadically experienced bouts of rage and destroyed her own work. Following an argument with the Comtesse she also lost her rich patron at this time. Despite increasing paranoia and isolation, Claudel did have other supporters; the art critic Gustave Geoffroy was a strong advocate of her work, as was the writer and critic Octave Mirbeau who wrote about her talent in the press. It seems though, that this was not enough as Claudel was convinced that the entire world was set against her and seemed to produce less original work but instead further copies of pieces that she had already made.
Her behaviour became increasingly unsettling to others as she secluded herself in her studio, installed traps behind her doors and only spoke to visitors through her shutters. She destroyed most of the work in her studio in 1912, and then tragically in 1913, her ever supportive father died. Claudel was not informed of her father's death and instead, now without opposition, her mother, her brother, and her sister instantly took the opportunity to have Claudel diagnosed with paranoia and committed to an asylum.
Following this sad extraction, the remains of Claudel's workshop were destroyed. Doctors tried to reason with Claudel's family that she was by no means insane, but the family wanted Claudel out of their lives and effectively imprisoned. In 1917, Claudel wrote to her former doctor, trying to negotiate her release, "I am reproached (what a terrible crime!) to have lived alone, spending my life with cats, to have felt persecuted! It is based on accusations that I have been imprisoned for five years and a half like a criminal, deprived of freedom, deprived of food, fire and the most basic essentials." Out of utter despair and embroiled in a nightmare, Claudel abandoned sculpture completely. Loyal admirers of her work openly criticized her family, while Rodin attempted to intercede in his former lover's favor without success. Claudel spent thirty years at the asylum of Montdevergues during which time she received only a handful of visits. When her old friend, Jessie Lipscomb visited her in 1929 she photographed Claudel who appears as the interesting shell of a once magnificent creature.
She died alone in 1943 at the age of 78, and was buried in the mass grave of the institution with her body never claimed by her family.
The Legacy of Camille Claudel
Following a long period of relative obscurity, with her work having been significantly overshadowed by her relationship with Rodin, it has now re-emerged and become rightfully recognized for its ingenuity in the portrayal of emotion and human nature. More so than that of any of her male contemporaries, the work of Claudel looks forward to the expressionist career of Edvard Munch and the Post-Impressionist journey of Vincent van Gogh. Diverging from the typical illusionist and historical depictions of the time, Claudel's approach prefigures the early-20th-century focus on autobiography, exploration of relationships, and self-representation, both in art and in the introduction of psychoanalysis. Although mildly influenced technically by Alfred Boucher and Auguste Rodin, Claudel was principally an innovator driven by her own individual experience.
Claudel's struggles with mental illness, her stigmatisation as an unusual solitary character, and decision to live on the borders of society raise questions surrounding the artistic temperament and what it in fact means to be an artist. Furthermore, her struggles cannot be dissociated from her sex as woman, for the eccentric and/or antisocial behaviour of male artists had already long since been tolerated. As a light at the end of a mostly long dark tunnel, the inauguration of the Musée Camille Claudel on the 26th of March 2017, the international day for women's rights, has acknowledged her influence to stem even beyond art history, to become a symbol for women's struggle to raise themselves up from the falling debris of a long standing patriarchal system.