Camille Claudel is best known for her tortured relationship with a famous man. She had an ill-fated romance with Auguste Rodin, who brought Claudel into his studio as a student and collaborator. Claudel would go on to display her own works at prestigious French Salons, impressing and scandalizing 19th-century critics. But her accomplishments have largely been obscured by the more dramatic details of her biography: her stormy love affair, her descent into madness when the relationship ended, her subsequent commitment to an asylum.
Now, a new museum in France seeks to shift focus back to Claudel’s influence as an artist, Claudia Barbieri Childs reports for The Art Newspaper. The Musée Camille Claudel is devoted to the artist’s drawings, casts and sculptures—the ones that she did not destroy when her relationship with Rodin soured.
The museum is located in Claudel’s former family home in Nogent-sur-Seine, about an hour drive southeast of Paris. The town purchased the villa in 2008, and went on to acquire 43 of Claudel’s pieces. Included in the collection are some of the artist’s most recognizable works, like the sensual bronze cast L’abandon, and Old Helen, an expressive bust that moved Rodin deeply when the couple first met in 1882, according to the Musée Rodin.
Claudel and her family lived in Nogent-sur-Seine for four years, writes Maev Kennedy of The Guardian. It was there that a 12-year-old Claudel began experimenting with sculpting clay. Her father, recognizing Claudel’s talent, would send her work to Alfred Boucher, a local sculptor and a friend of Rodin. Boucher judged she had talent and later introduced Claudel to the revered artist, sparking a relationship that would foster Claudel’s career and, ultimately, ruin her.
Rodin was immediately infatuated by Claudel’s “fiery temperament,” writes the Musée Camille Claudel, but he also respected the quality of her art. He hired her as an assistant to help him work on The Gates of Hell, an ornate pair of bronze doors that were commissioned for a new arts museum in Paris. Claudel was tasked with making the hands and feet of some of the 200 figures that would adorn this monumental project.
Throughout their affair, the couple learned from and inspired one another. Claudel served as Rodin’s muse, and he taught her “all of his knowledge,” according to the Musée Camille Claudel. Her work during this period shows clear markers of Rodin’s influence, but she seems to have shaped her lover’s work as well, the Musée Rodin writes on its website. Her Young Girl with a Sheaf precedes Rodin’s Galatea, for instance, and the similarities between them are undeniable.
By 1893, however, their relationship had begun to unravel. Claudel was angry that Rodin refused to leave his long-time partner Rose Beuret (though he had presented Claudel with a contract pledging himself to her, writes Arifa Akbar of The Telegraph), and she became determined to set out on her own. Claudel moved into a studio and began to isolate herself from the outside world, focusing intently on her art. But her efforts were marred by frustrating setbacks. Claudel’s work, which often focused on the nude human form, was censored by the press, according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. A major commission from the state was cancelled and, seemingly without cause, she blamed Rodin for the failure.
Claudel’s former lover became the focus of her increasing paranoia, according to Kennedy of The Guardian. She referred to him as “The Ferret,” and was convinced that his “gang” would break into her studio and steal her ideas. Ultimately, Claudel was committed to an asylum, and she remained in psychiatric facilities until her death in 1943.
The newly opened museum grants Claudel the sort of recognition that she so badly wanted, but never was granted during her lifetime. Its collection spans the trajectory of her career, writes Barbieri Childs of The Art Newspaper, from her days with Rodin to the period of her waning mental health.
Claudel drew inspiration from many sources—literature, mythology, classical art—but some of her pieces are deeply personal, offering a glimpse into her fraught psyche. On display at the Musée Camille Claude is the artist’s only monumental marble sculpture, Perseus and the Gorgon. The piece depicts a mythological scene replicated many times in art: the Greek hero Perseus clutching the severed head of a monstrous Gorgon. But the face of Claudel’s Gorgon, according to the website of the Musée Rodin, is a self-portrait.
Editor's Note, March 31, 2017: The headline for this story has been updated to better contextualize Claudel's life and legacy.