Until recently the life and work of French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) has been largely overshadowed by her much celebrated partner and fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin. As Rodin’s lover, Claudel has often simply been reduced to an artist’s muse, a beautiful and tragic backdrop to the life of one of the art world’s greatest masters.
(Camille Claudel c. 1884)
Inscribed into Western art history is the ideal of the artist as the lone male genius. In contrast to the genius of men, the artist’s muse is widely perceived as female. The artist commands the active role in this relationship. The muse is the passive decorative object on to which he may project his deepest desires, fantasies and fears. Picasso’s muse, for example, was famously Dora Maar, an artist in her own right, yet known more for her association with the painter than for her own work.
Camille Claudel, like Dora Maar, is often viewed through the lens of her lover’s perceived genius. Rodin was a much more prolific sculptor than Claudel, but it is believed he was enabled in this task by the help of his younger lover. The role of the muse is often to provide sexual, emotional and practical comfort, it is female sacrifice which in turn enables the work of the male heroic figure.
Many art historians now believe it was Claudel who was the more talented pioneer of the two however.
(Camille Claudel in the studio, c.1896)
Claudel met Rodin at his workshop at the age of nineteen; he was twenty four years older and also married. Rodin would not leave his wife for Claudel, aiming to keep both women in his life. The male sculptor was a known womanizer, a reputation celebrated in the mythology of the male artist. Such a sexual affair between a much younger female student and an older male tutor is one which has been played out again and again, not only indicative of the art world however, but of the gender roles and negative power relationships of wider society.
Claudel faced many trials as a woman and as a female artist. Her talent was recognised and supported by her father but other members of her family were against Claudel’s involvement in the often scandalous art world. As a woman in late 19th century French society, the support of her family was crucial to survival. The sculptor was also forced to have an abortion during her relationship to an increasingly unfaithful Rodin. As their relationship deteriorated, significantly Claudel’s work progressively flourished however, as she exhibited her work at the Paris Salon.
After the breakdown of the relationship, which many believed was connected to the rivalry her sculptures posed to that of her ex-lover’s, Claudel became more reclusive and obsessive about her work. Despite her obvious talent, it was the fact that she was a woman that was a barrier to the support and funding she needed as an artist. After her father died her family also withdrew any financial aid and the artist was forced into extreme poverty. The sculptor accused Rodin of threatening to kill her and her brother is believed to have been extremely jealous of her talents. Sculpting was an expensive business and the hostility and neglect of her ex-lover, family and art world all took its toll on Claudel who was showing signs of great distress.
(Camille Claudel, Torso of a woman squatting, 1885)
In the early years of the 20th century a form was signed by Claudel’s brother committing her in an asylum , despite the efforts of doctors who tried to tell her family it was inappropriate and that the artist was clear-headed. At this time it was common for women to be placed indefinitely in insane asylums for reasons from ‘hysteria’ to adultery, and often at the hands of male relatives who had authority over their sisters, mothers, nieces and daughters. During her incarceration the letters Claudel wrote to friends clearly showed she was lucid.
Claudel, however, was kept in the asylum for the remaining thirty years of her life. She died in 1943 and it is believed her brother did not attend her funeral.
Camille Claudel’s life was not romantically tragic, but indicative of cultural and societal persecution of women.
In recent years the work of this hugely skilled and pioneering sculptor has been more positively highlighted and the oppressive circumstances of her life dissected to create a more deservedly insightful view of Camille Claudel herself. Her legacy is not only her work but the recognition of the life she endured as a woman, and a female artist.