‘Of the dream that my life has been’
It did begin as a dream. Camille Claudel was seventeen, beautiful, intelligent, artistically talented. The young girl had just moved to Paris; she dreamed of becoming a sculptor. She studied at the Académie Colarossi then joined Alfred Boucher’s studio. There she met the man who would transform her life. His name was Auguste Rodin.
Rodin was in his forties and one of France’s most celebrated sculptors when, in 1885, he met this passionate, nymph-life artist. Her work was impressive; delicate and poignant. Her skill was unquestionable; she could capture emotions in blocks of marble and stone, tell a full narrative in a single position. It was almost painfully true. Rodin was enamored.
He offered her mentorship and a position as an assistant in his studio. She accepted, and soon after, also became his lover.
For twelve years their relationship would be rich and tumultuous. He would mold and promote his protégée, giving her exposure to the art world, which at the time was notoriously inaccessible to women artists. His influence on her work is undeniable, as is the passion she felt for him; one of her most impressive pieces is a bust portrait of him.
Camille also drew inspiration from artists like Donatello, Cellini.
She delved into Greco-Roman mythology, as well as into her own feelings. Under Rodin’s tutelage, she studied the nude figure and human anatomy, a rare opportunity for a woman in the nineteenth century. As his muse, she reciprocally inspired and contributed to some of the best work of his career.
By 1893, however, it had become clear to her that she would never grow as an independent artist under Rodin’s shadow. Their love affair was also stifling, as Rodin professed his love to Camille while refusing to leave his long-term partner, Rose Beuret.
Claudel worshipped Rodin, but that year, she finally broke away, writing in a letter:
“I reclaim my freedom with a loud cry.”
She worked tirelessly for the next twenty years, devoting herself to her art, but she would never forget Rodin or gain the world’s recognition. Critics and the French State found her nuanced portrayals of the human form ‘overly sensual and inappropriate.’ The male-dominated academies and Salon juries refused to grant her entry. And yet, she was brilliant; her only surviving monumental sculpture, Perseus and the Gorgon, attests to both a talent and passion without parallel.
Still, she was never able to secure a single commission.
Camille’s dream of a life unraveled as she descended into despair. She destroyed most of her sculptures herself; only about ninety remain. In 1913, her mother had her committed to a mental asylum. She would die there, alone and forgotten, in 1943. As for the greatest tragedy of this story: she would never touch another piece of clay.
“I had to have met you for everything to take on an unknown life, my dull existence flared up in a bonfire. Thank you, because it is to you that I owe all the heaven that I have had in my life.”
– August Rodin, in a letter to Camille Claudel, 1886
In 2017, the first museum in the world dedicated to Camille Claudel opened in Nogent-sur-Seine, the little picturesque town outside of Paris where her family once lived. All ninety surviving works are there, in a late but beautiful tribute to a young girl who came to Paris with dreams of becoming a sculptor.