What are we to make of the sculptor Camille Claudel (1864–1943), Rodin’s student, assistant, and mistress, who spent the last half of her life in an insane asylum, dying a virtual unknown? To be sure, since the 1984 retrospective of her work at the Musée Rodin in Paris, there has been more opportunity to learn about Claudel and her work than ever before. Yet in place of dispassionate scholarship and clear-headed analysis, much of what has been published about her has, at least of late, consisted of one-sided discussions of her work and innuendo leveled against Rodin and members of the Claudel family. It is as if the calamities that befell her—rather than anything she produced in the studio—entitled her to recognition as a serious artist.

Given this state of affairs, it is tempting to view the Claudel revival as another case of special pleading, the rehabilitation of a deservedly forgotten figure on grounds of art politics or sentimentality. But Claudel’s case is worth considering. First, she was an extremely talented sculptor—not the greatest, perhaps, but capable in her best moments of holding her own among her contemporaries in Paris. Second, Claudel’s story is a genuinely tragic one.

Camille Claudel was endowed from the beginning with a precocious gift for sculpture (she was producing Salon-quality portrait busts at the age of sixteen). She became a student of Rodin’s before she was twenty, and the relationship soon broadened. Claudel posed for Rodin and acted as his studio assistant; she was even entrusted with modeling the hands of some of his sculptures, a measure of Rodin’s respect for her talent, as he considered hands to be the most expressive part of the human body. The two soon began an affair, in spite of Rodin’s ongoing relationship with Rose Beuret, his companion of over a decade and the mother of his son. Claudel is herself believed to have borne two children by Rodin.

By the early Nineties, the affair was coming to an end; evidently, Rodin was reluctant to abandon Rose to marry Camille. Claudel became increasingly reclusive, and self-consciously adopted a sculptural style very different from her previous, Rodin-influenced manner, in order to escape her mentor completely.

The first signs of mental unbalance had begun to manifest themselves at the time the affair went sour.

The first signs of mental unbalance had begun to manifest themselves at the time the affair went sour. There is no way of knowing whether it was brought on by the deteriorating liaison, or if it would have occurred anyway. In any event, Claudel seems to have been convinced of a conspiracy by Rodin to plagiarize her work, then (aided by his friends) to ostracize and ruin her, and she experienced wild swings of mood. When “up” she would make sculpture, and when “down” she would destroy whole groups of work. As time went on, she grew more and more isolated from the outside world. Rodin tried repeatedly to see her, to send commissions her way, and to send her money (which she only accepted when ignorant of its source). Within the Claudel family, only her father would have anything to do with her, and when he died in 1913, the others had Camille committed to a psychiatric hospital under a law requiring only a physician’s signature. No relatives ever came to visit her in the asylum, except, once, her brother Paul, the famous poet and dramatist. Prohibited from making sculpture, her only outlet was letter writing. Long before she died in 1943, Paul was using her life story as an object lesson in the dangers of pursuing a life in art.

It is a tragic case of an artist diverted from a promising career by personal misfortune and family callousness. That it is not the first such case doesn’t make it any less affecting, of course. But when we want to take a fuller measure of her life and art, there are obstacles in our way. For one thing, her output is lamentably small; and the documentary material dealing with her life is scarce. (Typically, an envelope in the Musee Rodin archives that once contained the crucial correspondence between Rodin and Claudel is now mysteriously empty.) Even more troubling, however, is another sort of obstacle: Claudel’s life story and the aura of mystery that still surrounds it have become grist for the mill of those interested in making her a kind of martyr to art and to her gender. According to this scenario, Claudel was a great sculptor whose destiny went unfulfilled owing to her having been unjustly abused by her family and driven mad by her self-serving lover, upon whom she is said to have exerted an influence no one is willing to acknowledge. Leading the charge, as it were, is Reine-Marie Paris, the artist’s grand-niece (her grandfather was Paul Claudel).

Paris’s new biography of Camille Claudel must be the worst biography of an artist ever written.1 We’re told on the dust jacket that Paris is a writer and a professor. Whatever she teaches, it can’t be art history. There’s hardly anything that is useful about Claudel’s work anywhere in the book. Breathy, melodramatic, and inclined to innuendo, Paris seems intent on perpetuating rather than dispelling the myths that have surrounded the artist—as long as, this time, they reflect well on her great-aunt. For example, speaking of Rodin’s masterpiece, The Gates of Hell, she writes: “[Claudel] lent her body to more than one damned soul and many of the figures may have been made by her.” By making this last claim, she implicitly promotes Claudel from model to co-creator on the project, even though the late Frederic V. Grunfeld, in his 1987 biography of the sculptor, credits her with more limited involvement, sculpting details, making enlargements, and the like. Elsewhere, Paris asserts Claudel’s influence on Rodin, the only writer on either artist to make such a claim:

It is difficult to imagine that the great sculptor ever actually plagiarized or stole from Camille Claudel. The reality is much more complex: [her] obsession with theft and plagiarism was a subtle and unconscious transference—Camille had given away a part of her genius to Rodin and now she could not get it back from him. . . . Until 1913 . . . at exhibitions and in collectors’ homes, Camille was more than likely to see [in Rodin’s work] larger and modified versions of her own statues—works inspired by her ideas or created thanks to them.

Finally, Paris is embarrassingly biased in her assessment of the two artists’ work. We are told, for instance, that

although certainly capable of expressing an idea, especially when he had to submit to the discipline of a specific commission—The Burghers of Calais and Balzac are examples—Rodin mishandled countless subjects because of his inability to conceive and master ideas. The Thinker (Le Penseur) is a powerful paleontological athlete at rest, but it is easy enough to see that he has a long way to go before he is a Pascal.

The tone changes for Camille Claudel, however, whose

best works are the fruits of her research and careful thought, and they ripen. Each work is the result of a special and renewed attention and is born out of and for the idea it expresses. Process and formula as creative methods are completely foreign to Camille Claudel, as are repetitions and revivals. The figures that comprise her groups are not interchangeable.

The comments on Rodin are simply splenetic, and those on Claudel inaccurate, especially the remarks in the last two sentences, which are meant as digs at Rodin’s practice of re-using figures from one sculpture to another. For one thing, Claudel used the same pose, if not the same figure, in at least three different sculptures; for another, Rodin’s habit of recombination doesn’t denote imaginative impoverishment. It was a practice central to his aesthetic, as anyone who knows anything about Rodin’s work will understand. Among other things, it provided Rodin with a means of breaking with academic naturalism, which regarded the sculptured figure as the direct, unique counterpart of the model in nature.

Paris’s new biography of Camille Claudel must be the worst biography of an artist ever written.

Readers interested in a more balanced account of Claudel’s life should turn to the ninth chapter of Frederic V. Grunfeld’s biography of Rodin. Grunfeld went to the same documentary sources as Paris, but came up with a far more even-handed chronicle of her life.

Under the circumstances, then, it came as something of a relief finally to be able to see Claudel’s work and judge her firsthand. The opportunity arose when the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, hosted a retrospective of the Claudel’s work that had been touring Japan last year.2 Organized by the ubiquitous Reine-Marie Paris along with Meredith Martindale, an American art historian living in Paris, the show was made up of about sixty sculptures, paintings, and drawings, and it included important works whose whereabouts were unknown at the time of the Musée Rodin exhibition in 1984.

“Camille Claudel” was the ideal show for the Women’s Museum, an institution which has yet to establish itself as a credible presence in the museum world, and by and large it was a success. Certainly Claudel’s work held its own sufficiently to dispel any doubts that the show was a case of gender-related special pleading. At points it was even moving. The realization that one was in the presence of an artist of real talent was quickly followed by an acute awareness of what had been lost in this troubled, abbreviated career. Yet even this exhibition was unable to make Claudel stand out in sharp relief. It didn’t help that the show was up for only a month (a circumstance forced on the museum by certain lenders). Even worse, the catalogue was written by Reine-Marie Paris, bad news for anyone looking for a discussion of Claudel’s sculpture from an aesthetic perspective. Here is Paris’s account of the artist’s Bust of Rodin (1892):

All of the ambiguities of Auguste Rodin are concentrated here: the beastly and panic-stricken terror of the Minotaur who swallows young victims and the overriding genius of an ancient prophet of the champion of his dear Michelangelo. Claudel sculpted the bust of Rodin, portraying the majesty of his destiny, in the full bloom of her love, before the pain and hatred destroyed it.

The empty melodrama of this passage is even clearer when it is set beside a passage from Bruno Gaudichon’s 1984 catalogue. He is commenting on the same work:

In fact, tying in with the [earlier] subjective portraits of her family, Camille Claudel interprets her teacher’s face by approaching the model’s character in two ways. The problem of likeness is essentially resolved by the working of the “heavy beard, which sticks out and forms a pedestal” [the phrase is from a biography of Claudel by Mathias Morhardt, laying stress on one objective characteristic of the individual. But Camille Claudel goes beyond this simple consideration of resemblance by imparting to the bust a stronger Rodinian flavor than in any of her other works. The mistress, the student, thus pays homage to her master, realizing a sort of self-portrait of Rodin. [My translation]

Finally, the exhibition fell victim to a good idea that backfired. About a dozen Rodin sculptures, all works she had posed for, were added to Claudel’s. The point, of course, was to show what an important place she occupied in the artist’s life. But the juxtaposition was unfortunate. Forty-five years after her death, and at a time of belated recognition, Claudel was forced to stand again in Rodin’s shadow.

As the exhibition showed, the hard truth is that Claudel came into her own as a sculptor while in Rodin’s orbit, and was never as good once she had passed out of it. It may seem unfair to compare her with Rodin, but it is inevitable, since it was always in terms of Rodin that she defined herself, even when she was repudiating him. Besides, what late nineteenth-century sculptor can avoid such a comparison?

Claudel’s work up to the time she met Rodin in 1883 is well within the academic canon, even though it is remarkably accomplished for someone so young. It consists of sculpted portrait busts, ranging from a heroizing image of her thirteen-year-old brother in a toga to a self-consciously realistic portrait of the elderly family maid. The only real flaw in the work of this period is Claudel’s tendency to concentrate on the surface. Claudel’s modeling, even of the wrinkled face of the maid, only goes so deep, so that we are always aware of a solid, unarticulated mass beneath the surface instead of an underlying structure of bone or sinew.

The work done between the break with Rodin in the early Nineties and Claudel’s institutionalization in 1913 is more difficult to summarize, but surely it suffers from the absence of Rodin’s guiding influence. Some pieces are cloyingly sentimental, like The Little Mistress (1893–94), the bust of a young girl gazing earnestly and innocently upward, like Oliver Twist asking for more. Others take the form of vapid, Rococo narrative sculptures. The Gossips shows three Renoirlike nudes intently listening to a fourth addressing them. The Wave has three bronze nymphs cavorting under the looming swell of an imminently breaking wave. This piece introduced precious materials (the wave is carved onyx). Although this was a common practice at the time, it was disapproved of by both conservative academicians and the innovative Rodin, which may have been the reason it appealed to Claudel.

Claudel’s contact with Rodin released something that transformed and sustained her sculpture.

It is clear from comparing these two periods that Claudel’s contact with Rodin released something that transformed and sustained her sculpture. From Rodin, Claudel apparently learned a greater freedom and vividness of modeling, the use of bodily gesture to convey emotion, the expressive cropping of the figure, and a lyricism that turned easily into a Rodinesque eroticism. But was all this—we are meant to wonder-learned from Rodin? Or was it already there?

It is easy to believe it was learned, since Claudel came to Rodin so young. Precocious as she was, it is unlikely that she would have had time to develop an independent aesthetic. On the other hand, both Paris and Grunfeld tell the story of Paul Dubois, then the director of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, looking at Claudel’s work in 1883 and asking her if she had studied under “Monsieur Rodin,” this just before the two artists met. Most likely Claudel, though not the type of sculptor to have made, by herself, the sort of discoveries Rodin did, at least was working in such a way as to profit quickly from what Rodin had to teach her.

Certainly his impact was felt almost at once, and completely. Within a year of becoming his student, Claudel was at work on Torso of a Woman Squatting, a foot-high figure without a head, arms, and most of the left leg, whose crouching posture and slight twist to the torso endow it with a taut dynamism. Yet once under Rodin’s sway, Claudel was never really able to deviate from the master’s subject matter or form, which is one reason it is hard to believe Paris’s claim of influence travelling in the other direction. The embracing nudes in Abandon (1888–1905) are but slightly adjusted versions of the couple in Rodin’s Eternal Idol (1889). And the woman’s pose is taken almost exactly from Rodin’s Adam of 1880. Only in The Waltz, which depicts two lovers spiral-ing into space on a craggy drapery swirl, and Maturity, in which an old man (supposedly Rodin) is led away by a hag (Rose Beuret) from an imploring nymph (Camille), does Claudel pull somewhat clear of Rodin’s powerful artistic attraction. But in these two works what we have is Rodin’s style put to the service of a pompier sensibility. Otherwise, Claudel’s career vividly illustrates what Brancusi meant when he said of his departure from Rodin’s studio, “Nothing can grow in the shadow of the great trees.”

Claudel does her best work in her sculpted portrait busts.

Claudel does her best work in her sculpted portrait busts, perhaps because, with her subjects “given,” she had no need to borrow Rodin’s and could simply benefit from his formal innovations. Her portraits have the vitality and active surface of Rodin’s busts, yet at the same time point up the essential differences between the two artists. Claudel’s Rodinesque treatment of form only goes far enough to describe the appearance and intimate the character of her sitters, stopping short of the larger statements about art and the human condition for which Rodin is so well known. Similarly, Claudel’s busts have none of Rodin’s fluidity—that feeling of form coalescing out of liquid matter—nor any of his Impressionist, form-dissolving play of light across the surface. As with her early works, one is aware of the persistence of a solid core of form undisturbed beneath the surface activity, even if this is somewhat offset by a new awareness of the body’s architecture.

When seen next to Rodin’s work, Claudel’s approach to form clearly speaks of a lingering classicism. There is a desire to hold onto the stable world of appearances and things rather than acknowledge the more modern condition that saw the visible realm as a constant flux, an outlook expressed in the work of Rodin, Monet, and, later, Cézanne.

If Claudel’s portraits are on the whole less psychologically penetrating than those of her mentor, they are still works of considerable distinction. Her 1892 head of Rodin departs from the romanticized genius-dreamer who was popularized by Edward Steichen’s 1902 photograph, substituting instead a vision of Rodin as he must have appeared to his sitters, his eyes riveted on something in front of him. And her Bust of Madame Bouchard, a left-facing nude with closed eyes, is a tour de force of portraiture. Claudel has here fixed two competing states, giving us a scrupulously realistic account of the model’s ascetic exterior appearance while powerfully evoking a mood of interior reverie.

In spite of Claudel’s evident indebtedness to Rodin, she was capable of producing some breathtaking moments of her own, as the Washington exhibition made clear. Her forte was modeling on a small, even intimate scale—her sculpture tends to be good in inverse proportion to its size. Diana, for example, a seven-inch plaster bust, has the immediacy of a sketch and the presence of a full-sized work. In the delicacy and sensitivity of Hand, about the size of Diana, it is easy to see why Rodin entrusted the hands of his own work to her.

The most startling thing about the Washington show was the discovery that, for all her debt to Rodin, Claudel showed the promise of independence. In the smaller works, the germ of a bold impulse is visible, suggesting that she had not only absorbed Rodin’s style but even glimpsed its implications. There is no disputing what the early Torso of a Woman Squatting owes to Rodin in its pose (which recalls his 1880 Crouching Woman) and its cropping of limbs. But Claudel has gone further in her treatment of the partial figure than Rodin ever did. He was, he felt, merely trimming away distracting excess. For him, the fragment stood for the whole, the integrity of which he asserted by the attention he gave to the body’s structure by cutting only at the joints. By contrast, Claudel cuts radically. In this piece, the arms are off almost past the shoulders, and the leg is cut from mid-thigh to ankle. Claudel’s anatomical arbitrariness—combined with the figure’s dense, compact silhouette—hints at a conception of the figure as, in part, an object. Thus, she takes a small but crucial step in the direction of abstraction. In Torso of a Woman Squatting, she prefigures such later object sculptures as Matisse’s 1908 Small Crouching Torso, likewise headless and armless and, at roughly three inches in length, meant to be handled rather than attached to a base. And, of course, she makes us see Brancusi on the horizon.

In Claudel’s sculptures of animals, a similar tendency is evident. The beast in Dog Gnawing on a Bone (1898) crouches low to secure a good purchase on its trophy, a pose which, in the hands of a sculptor like Barye, was tailor-made for displaying torsion and musculature. But Claudel’s modeling of the dog pays scant heed to the underlying anatomy. Instead, her surfaces consist of numerous miniature facets and shallow indentations, accompanied by a sharply defined contour. As an animalière, Claudel is a link in the transitional chain running from Barye’s vigorous realism to the later, stylized abstractions of Elie Nadelman.

In the end, then, Claudel’s achievement appears to have been more modest than her recent publicity would have us believe. She was a good sculptor, but not a great one, and was good in large measure because of her association with Rodin. One can speculate on what role she might have played in the sculptural revolution then underway had she been able to pursue a normal career, but speculation never takes one very far. It may be painful to let go of some of the myths surrounding Claudel, because myths are easier to live with than reality. But it is necessary to do so in the interest of a larger kind of justice, in order that her work may be seen for what it is, not for what it might have been. This is all any artist wants, and it is difficult to believe Claudel herself would have felt any differently.

  1.   Camille: The Life of Camille Claudel, Rodin’s Muse and Mistress, translated from the French by Liliane Emery Tuck; Seaver Books, 258 pages, $29.95.
  2.   “Camille Claudel” was on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from April 25 through May 31. The catalogue, written by Reine-Marie Paris and Meredith Martindale, was published by the museum; 114 pages, $24.95.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 3, on page 54
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