Recognition is the currency of validation, and Camille Claudel sought it on her own terms. She not only built a life for herself as an artist in a time when it was almost unthinkable for a woman to do so, but she also created work that authentically transcended expectations placed upon her. The triumph of her sculptural works is hers alone, and under fairer circumstances, this review would discuss her legacy as one of the most brilliant and most celebrated sculptors in history. Unfortunately, Claudel’s work has been largely overshadowed by a miserably depressing story of passion, loss and abuse, which I feel is important to include.
Camille Claudel lived in France from 1864 to 1943. From a very young age, she dedicated her efforts to receiving an artist’s education, eventually enrolling at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. Very few schools admitted women as students at the time, but Académie Colarossi provided Claudel the even rarer opportunity to work from nude models in her studies: An absolute necessity for any serious artist in Paris at the time. Claudel’s talent was recognized by the sculptor Alfred Boucher, who became her mentor until he moved to Florence in 1882. In his stead, he asked the sculptor Auguste Rodin to take over instructing his students. It is at this point in the story that many sources eagerly discuss the intense romantic relationship that formed between Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, but I’d encourage readers to be cautious around such language. Claudel was only nineteen years old at the time; Rodin was forty-two. Rodin was also already considered one of the most important artists in France; ignoring the power dynamic of this relationship puts an unfair burden on Claudel, who is frequently given full autonomy as Rodin’s muse, lover and confidante. Their relationship was also complicated by the existence of Rose Beuret, who had been Rodin’s companion and partner for over twenty years.
Difficulties between Rodin and Claudel culminated in a desperate letter written by Rodin in 1886 in which he offered Claudel a contract: “I will have for a student only Mademoiselle Camille Claudel and I will protect her alone through all the means I have at my disposal… we will go to Italy and will live there communally for six months of an indissoluble liaison after which Mademoiselle Camille will be my wife.”
This promise smoothed things between the two artists for several years before it became apparent that Rodin had no intention of ever leaving Rose. (Rodin would eventually marry Rose in 1917, sixteen days before she died of pneumonia.) Claudel and Rodin became increasingly distant, and Claudel severed most of her ties with him in 1892. An unwelcome pregnancy with Rodin’s child around this time led Claudel to get an abortion, which harmed Claudel’s already strained relationship with her family.
Leaving Rodin also had a disastrous effect on Claudel’s career. Rodin continued to financially support her from a distance for a time, but his support abruptly ended upon seeing the model for a new sculpture Claudel was working on for the Ministry of Fine Arts, titled “L’Âge mûr” [The Age of Maturity]. Claudel’s sculpture depicts an aging man turning away from a young woman on her knees pleading with him to take her hand. To the man’s side, an older woman pulls him away from the youthful figure, encouraging him with reassuring whispers as they embrace. Critics rightfully understood the work as an allegory for the difficulties of aging and leaving behind one’s youthful abandon. Rodin rightly understood the work was a depiction of his decision to stay with Rose. The sculpture was originally commissioned by the Ministry of Fine Arts to be cast in bronze, but the funding for this commission was canceled without explanation after Rodin saw the completed model.
While a kindly patron, Captain Louise Tissiet, eventually financed Claudel to cast “L’Âge mûr” in bronze, the next thirteen years of Claudel’s life were a slow spiral into poverty and relative obscurity. Her mental health rapidly declined, and she fell victim to frequent paranoid delusions. Regular monetary gifts from her family and sparse sales through the art dealer Eugène Blot saved her from total destitution, but she became increasingly reclusive. She took to shutting herself in her studio for long periods of time, and she would also frequently destroy her studio works by burning them or dismantling them with a hammer.
The death of her father in 1913 was also the loss of her final remaining familial advocate. In consultation with Camille’s mother and younger sister, her brother Paul made the decision to have Camille committed to a mental asylum. Eight days after the death of her father, she would be forcibly removed from her studio and institutionalized at a nearby psychiatric hospital. Camille Claudel would spend the remaining thirty years of her life in an asylum despite near-constant pleas that she wrote to her family in the hope of being released.
Multiple letters from different doctors at the asylum encouraged Claudel’s family to reconsider her placement based on her improved mental state, and several advocated for her to be released entirely. These and other requests from Claudel’s visitors were dismissed. Claudel created no new sculptures while she was institutionalized, even when clay was sent to her as a gift on several occasions.
Claudel’s story strongly resonates with an audience increasingly frustrated by museums celebrating the same tired cohort of white male artists whose canon status prevents their problematic and abusive actions from tarnishing their reputation with the general public. As such, “Camille Claudel” at the Art Institute is a monumentally important and timely exhibition. The last time this many of Claudel’s works were on display together in the United States was an exhibition organized at the Detroit Institute of Art in 2005 titled “Camille Claudel and Rodin: Fateful Encounter,” so it is especially refreshing to see this exhibition at the Art Institute where Claudel isn’t just Rodin’s opening act. Several works by Rodin do appear in this show, but it feels like they are included only for contextual evidence of Claudel’s impact on his work.
Claudel’s exhibition was curated by Emerson Bowyer, Searle Curator of painting and sculpture of Europe at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Anne-Lise Desmas, the senior curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Leticia Pardo, the creative director of Exhibition Design at the Art Institute of Chicago, did the exhibition design. It feels obvious to me that great care was taken to present an exhibition of Claudel’s work which focuses on her artistic genius first and her life story second, which is admirable, but I also feel the show doesn’t quite capture the full weight of Claudel’s declining mental health and subsequent institutionalization. An “Epilogue” on the wall near the exit of the exhibition states “Tragically, she refused to make any new sculpture during her internment,” which is decidedly unfair. A more sensitive approach could mention how Claudel’s traumatic institutionalization prevented her from working, as it barely sustained her.
I have a vivid memory of being awestruck when I first saw pictures of Claudel’s work in one of the art-history courses I took in college, and I remember my professor Suzanne Chouteau’s deep sigh as she explained how hard it was to see these sculptures in person. I had exceedingly high expectations for this exhibition, and I’m happy to report I left the gallery feeling satisfied with the display of Claudel’s works. I will admit it even feels a little silly to be writing this review, as Claudel was the finest sculptor of her time, bar none. If you don’t believe me, you finally have the chance to go see for yourself.
“Camille Claudel” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan through February 19, 2024.
Frank Geiser is a visual artist and arts writer based in the south suburbs of Chicago. He is a professor of Visual Communication and Design at Purdue University Northwest.