In the Stone: Camille Claudel's Life

Blog: In the Stone: Camille Claudel's Life

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Camille Claudel was born in Fère-en-Tardenois, France on December 8, 1864. She was the eldest of three children to Louis-Prosper and Louise-Athanaïse Claudel. From a young age, Camille was fascinated with sculpting materials such as soil and clay. At the age of ten, she moved on to sculpt with stone from a nearby quarry.

After seeing his teenaged daughter’s extraordinary talent for sculpting, Camille’s father contacted sculptor Alfred Boucher to teach and advise her. Boucher also noted her incredible gift and convinced her father to move the family to Paris to pursue her training, which he did in 1881. At the time, there were very few places for women to study art—the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts barred them entirely—so Camille entered the Académie Colarossi, a more forward- thinking establishment. There she met her lifelong friend and fellow sculptor, Jessie Lipscomb. Alfred Boucher remained Camille’s mentor and teacher until he won the Grand Prix du Salon and moved to Italy. His friend, Auguste Rodin, agreed to take over the women’s tutelage. When Camille met Rodin, sparks flew, and both their lives changed forever. Camille was 19 years old.

Auguste Rodin was 43 years old and already a prominent sculptor, having been commissioned to design the portal for the future Museum of Decorative Arts, The Gates of Hell. The sheer scale, along with another commission (The Burghers of Calais) required him to hire assistants. After noticing her gifts, Rodin hired Camille. Rapidly, the two become entwined as collaborators, inspirations and lovers. They would go on to have a passionate ten-year love affair.

Besides their romantic involvement, the two influenced each other artistically. Many of Rodin’s masterpieces include elements Camille created, particularly the more difficult pieces such as hands and feet, and her own work during this time showed Rodin’s inspiration in terms of shapes and subjects. During their time together, Camille was also working on her own projects she hoped would attract attention. While her 1886 sculpture, Sakountala, did win a Salon prize, Camille’s art was often ignored because she was a woman or only seen as Rodin’s muse. In time, she grew to resent living in Rodin’s shadow, along with his unwillingness to leave his long-term companion, Rose Beuret, to be with her.

In 1893, Camille, desperate to break free of the constant comparison to Rodin, left his studio. During their separation, Camille’s creative individuality blossomed; she drew inspiration from the emotion of everyday life, and she experimented with different materials such as combining marble and bronze—an unprecedented innovation. Camille’s art was boldly expressive, and she was uniquely able to capture emotion and human nature. However, as a female sculptor, Camille struggled to earn recognition for her work from the established art world.

Despite their falling out, Rodin continued to quietly support Camille both financially and artistically, although Camille was convinced he was sabotaging her. She began to isolate herself and experienced bouts of rage and paranoia. Occasionally she even destroyed her work. Eventually, she secluded herself in her studio and refused all visitors.

Camille’s father, who had protected her all her life, died on March 3, 1913. One day after Camille learned of her father’s death, her mother (who had always disapproved of her) and her brother Paul had her committed to an asylum, where she remained for 30 years until her death. Camille never sculpted again and upon her death in 1943, she was buried in an unmarked communal grave.

Camille Claudel’s work is finally enjoying the recognition it so richly deserves. She is celebrated as a forward thinker and artistic innovator, completely different than either Boucher or Rodin. Camille’s drive to capture her own experiences, along with her portrayal of emotion and human nature, impacted the Expressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. In March 2017, the Musée Camille Claudel, an entire museum dedicated to her work, opened to rightfully place Camille on the platform of artists who pushed the world to new heights.