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Camille claudel -
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Camille Claudel, a Life

Camille Claudel: a Life of Passion

By Sabrina Laurent

Hyperlinks will take you to pictures of her works

This year marks the 140th anniversary of the birth of Camille Claudel, a genius of sculpture who has never obtained the popularity she deserved and whose life and work still remain obscure to most of us. Very often, those who ever heard of her will automatically relate her to sculptor Auguste Rodin (her teacher and lover), but very few people have really seen her as a genuine, individual artist. For this reason, it is important to honour the memory of Camille Claudel.

Camille discovered her passion for sculpture when she was very young. Born in December 1864, in Fère-en-Tardenois, France, Camille grew up in a family of humble condition. Fascinated with stone and soil since her childhood, the sister of French writer Paul Claudel (1868-1955) soon understood the power of creation and found support from her father who introduced her to sculptor Alfred Boucher (1850-1934) when she was a young teenager. Boucher immediately saw the talent of Camille and recommended that she move to Paris to look for more opportunities and develop a career. Very supportive, Camille's father soon decided to take the entire family to Paris, in 1881. Camille worked under the aegis of Boucher until he departed for Italy in 1883, and was trusted to Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). She soon became not only his assistant but also his muse and lover.

The two artists inspired each other and Camille studied the nude figure thanks to Rodin, a rare opportunity for a woman of that time period. Their passionate and tormented relatioship ended in 1893, while Rodin's work was celebrated and Camille ignored. In an attempt to establish her own reputation, Camille secluded herself to work intensely, but her efforts remained vain; poor, rejected, her work censored, Camille's genius was never fully acknowledged, thus resulting in the decline of her career and mental state. Isolated and paranoid, Camille was committed to an asylum in 1913, at Ville-Evrard, and transferred one year later to an asylum in Montdevergues (near Avignon), where she remained until her death in October 1943.

While Camille destroyed a lot of her work shortly before her transfer to the asylum, the artistic legacy she left proves her genius. Camille reveals a profound understanding of anatomical features, using mainly plaster, marble, bronze and even onyx. Her work shows elegance and mastery, and becomes particularly original at the turn of the 20th century, with the influence of Japanism and Art Nouveau.

Camille's most famous works include Sakountala (1888), La Valse (1892), Clotho (1893), L'Age Mûr (1895), Les Causeuses (1897) and La Vague (1902).

While her excessive, almost unstable personality may explain her mental decline to a certain extent, several other factors contributed to Camille's tragic fate.

First of all, Camille's work was never really recognized and too many people only saw her as "Rodin's lover." Camille sold very little of her work when she was alive, and while Rodin helped her financially, she spent her last few years of freedom in poverty. The art establishment and potential patrons rejected her, simply because she was a woman, and even worse - an unmarried woman of humble condition who was Rodin's mistress.

Insulted as a person, Camille was also insulted as an artist. Many accused her of copying Rodin's style while we know, today, that both artists inspired each other and that Camille did have a personal, unique touch.

During her entire life, Camille felt profoundly rejected by the people she loved and society. While she found support from her father and her brother Paul, Camille was rejected by her own mother who only saw her as an useless, debauched young woman. Yet, Camille's greatest disillusion came from the man she loved her entire life: Auguste Rodin.

While we know that Camille was French composer Claude Debussy's partner for a while, the undeniable love of her life remained Rodin. When their love affair started, Camille was barely twenty years old, and Rodin was already in his fourties and married to a woman named Rose Beuret. As passionate and intense as their relationship was, Camille never succeeded in convincing Rodin to divorce from Rose and marry her. Rodin regularly abandoned Camille by herself to return to Rose, and the most touching symbol of Camille's grief is her sculpture L'Age Mûr, which represents Camille, naked, begging Rodin to stay with her while he walks away, wrapped in the arms of an old lady with vulture-like features - Rose. This scene, which really took place, summarizes the climate of their relationship and the tragedy lived by Camille who could never supplant Rose.

Even more than being simply jeered as a lover, Camille felt jeered as a woman as well. While one can't doubt Rodin's passionate feelings for Camille, we can still question the quality and nature of his love. Indeed, from the very beginning, Rodin seemed to see in Camille the perfect muse - she inspired many of his sculptures - and the source of his creativity. Rodin fell in love not only with Camille's ingenuous, excessive personality, but also - and maybe above all - with the curves and details of her body, not out of a simple physical attraction, but for their artistic, creative power and value that spoke to the sculptor. In the end, one could wonder if Rodin only saw in Camille a "living statue," a perfect model and a source of infinite inspiration and fascination - thus neglecting the woman.

This impression is reinforced by the fact that Camille felt profoundly frustrated by Rodin's refusal to give her a child. After getting pregnant accidentally, Camille had a miscarriage that deeply upset her, while Rodin remained indifferent and seemed primarily worried about getting Camille pregnant anew.

Jealous of Rose, abandoned by Rodin, rejected, lonely and poor, Camille Claudel soon became more and more tormented and paranoid, especially when Rodin became successful and his work praised by the critics and the art establishment. Today, Camille still doesn't have her own museum and most of her works are kept in one of the rooms of the Rodin museum in Paris.

As one of the rare female sculptors of that time period, Camille Claudel needs to be recognized for her own work, her innovative vision and the power of her sculptures. While keeping her work in context, it is important to view her own personal genius as detached from Rodin's as possible, to only remember the originality and achievement of an artist who lived passionately and whose creation needs to be finally honoured.

Copyright © 2004 by Sabrina Laurent. May not be reproduced or used without permission of the author.
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