CR Muse: Camille Claudel’s Struggle for Freedom

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

It is said that there are only 90 remaining artworks by the French sculptor Camille Claudel. Her output count would have been higher had she not destroyed many of her unsold works in a fit of paranoia. And who knows the heights her career could have soared had she not been committed to an asylum against her will.

In 1881 Claudel, her mother, and her siblings moved from the north of France to Paris, while her father stayed behind to work. Already showing talent as a sculptor, she attended Académie Colarossi where she initially studied under Alfred Boucher. But Boucher eventually moved to Florence, finding a new teacher for his students before leaving: Auguste Rodin.

History may have reduced Claudel to Rodin’s muse and lover, but it was her skill as an artist that made her vital to his work. She joined his studio in 1884 as an apprentice and assistant, contributing to his pieces while also working on her own.

Though hard in materiality (her works could be carved from stone or cast in metal), there was a fluidity to Claudel’s style. Motion and softness alike were captured in her art. Among her most famous sculptures is The Waltz (1889-90), a piece depicting two dancers at an angle, with fabric swirling around them, featuring elements of Art Nouveau. Her work would occasionally draw from her own life. Maturity (1899) depicts an older man and woman leaving a younger woman behind, as she pleads for him to stay. Naturally this has drawn comparisons to her relationship with Rodin.

Claudel studied with Rodin for seven years, although their personal relationship fell apart. Rodin would not leave his longtime partner, Rose Beuret (perhaps the older woman in Maturity), despite promising her that he would. She was more than talented enough to strike it out on her own, unfortunately society—including the art world—was hostile towards independent women. Where her male counterparts were free to express themselves as they chose, she found obstacles. It was difficult for her to move up through the world of art, or to receive funding. In fact, she was partially financially supported by Rodin and her father.

Claudel also became increasingly reclusive while her mental health deteriorated. She began to believe that Rodin was out to get her, and stealing her ideas, hence the aforementioned destruction of her own work. Rodin wasn’t out to get her, but her family arguably was. After her father passed away in 1913, her mother and brother had her committed to an asylum. She remained institutionalized until her death, 30 years later.

As a figure Claudel is certainly a captivating one—her life has inspired a novel and two films (one, Camille Claudel 1915, was released as recently as 2013). Her story is that of a woman determined to follow her passion as all costs, despite being stiffed by a society that felt no sympathy to her mental health, and was determined to keep her down because of her gender. Thankfully, time has been good to Claudel. There has been increased recognition for her work as an artist, culminating in an entire museum dedicated to her sculptures. The Musée Camille Claudel opened in 2017 in France, finally giving her the space and honor she rightfully deserves.

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