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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Camille Claudel

Camille Claudel : une femme. By Anne Delbée (San Francisco : Mercury House, 1992). Library of Congress General Collections.

Camille Claudel (1864-1943), an extremely talented sculptor in her own right, remains inextricably linked to her mentor and lover, Auguste Rodin. Few affairs can compare in terms of raw talent and tragic outcomes. Claudel's fame has made her the subject of many books, a slew of films, and even a musical. She was a precocious sculptor and a beautiful muse. She began life as an inquisitive child who made good use of her father's library and developed an early interest in sculpture. Despite her mother's misgivings, her father took some interest in his daughter's talents and supported her as she moved with her family to Paris. She was able to continue with her studies, and unlike the École des Beaux-Arts which did not admit women, she was allowed to enroll in the Académie Colarossi where she began working with the renowned sculptor Alfred Boucher.

The sculptor Auguste Rodin immediately recognized Claudel's natural talent and took her on as an assistant in his studio in 1883. Here she was able to help him with his sculptures, and work with live nude models, which was unusual for women artists at the time. Claudel worked on two of Rodin's most famous works, the controversial Burgers of Calais, and The Gates of Hell. While learning from Rodin as a great master himself, Claudel had her own independent vision. As she matured in her craft, her sculptures were known and sometimes criticized as being overly sensual, vigorous and forceful. Ever independent, Claudel insisted on direct control over the casting process. While others usually gave their clay models to technicians for casting, she cast her own sculptures in bronze. She and Rodin quickly became lovers — a move that would have tragic consequences for Claudel's career and mental state.

In 1892 Claudel had an abortion and ended her relationship with Rodin. Their budding rivalry, and his refusal to leave his longtime mistress Rose Beuret, left Claudel in a state of isolation and she began to feel alienated and persecuted. Sadly, without the financial support of Rodin and the credibility he loaned to her adventurous designs, Claudel found herself impoverished. Sexual discrimination prevented her from making a living in the same manner as a man, and with the death of her father she was entirely alone. Sculpture as a craft is exceptionally expensive and her mother abandoned her as a result of her harsh disapproval for Claudel's chosen vocation. Her family behaved questionably towards her to say the least, and her mother and sister in particular, failed to recognize her immense and rare talent. Critics have likened her genius to that of Berthe Morisot (a female Impressionist artist of the time) and have speculated that Rodin began to see her as a rival and in that sense left her to fade into obscurity. However, given his efforts to both visit Camille (something her mother and brother had made impossible) and his successful inclusion of her work in his own museum it seems more likely that he felt remorse over her situation and made attempts to improve it. Similar and much more convincing accusations are leveled against her brother, the famous writer, Paul Claudel and her mother (who never once visited her daughter while institutionalized). It seems clear that Claudel's talent as an artist and her remarkable beauty did not serve her well. Famous composer Claude Debussy had fallen hopelessly in love with Claudel, but by age 30 her romantic life was over as she was forcibly committed to an insane asylum where she spent the remaining many years of her tragic life. It is not the drama of her personal relationships, but rather her unique vision that keeps her name and her work alive today. The quality and energy of her sculpture has resulted in growing recognition. Her works are collected world wide, and her story has touched many. In 2017 approximately half of her full body of work (some 70 pieces) were obtained from the Claudel family and the Musée Camille Claudel External was established in her hometown of Nogent-sur-Seine in Northern France.

For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: Women in the Long 19th Century and Feminism in the 20th Century.

You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following headings:

Claudel, Camille, 1864-1943

Print & Digital Resources