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GREAT EUROPEAN LIVES: The life of French sculptor Camille Claudel

French sculptor Camille Claudel in 1935 - Credit: Mondadori Portfolio/Archivio Mar

The screaming sounded otherworldly, inhuman even, and drew people living on the Ile Saint-Louis on the Seine in the centre of Paris to their windows. After a while they saw two burly men in caps and overalls struggling in the doorway of one of the apartment buildings, trying to wrestle a middle-aged woman towards a vehicle parked at the kerbside. Her hands gripped the door frame: wherever they were trying to take her wasn’t anywhere she wanted to go. Her clothes were filthy, her hair dishevelled and the screaming incessant. She sounded desperate, pleading, frightened, yelling incoherently, looking up at the windows as if hoping someone might come to her aid. The neighbours could make out the word ‘Rodin’ but that was about it.

They had been talking for years about the strange woman in their street, a sculptor apparently, who had been something to do with Rodin. She was rarely seen and nobody in the street could recall ever speaking to her. There were rumours she roamed the streets at night and gave strange parties for the homeless and misfits on the banks of the Seine. Her apartment was rumoured to be a scene of abject squalor. The less kind among them insisted she was mad.

Eventually the men, orderlies from the Ville-Evrard mental hospital in Paris, succeeded in prising her fingers from the door jamb and bundled her quickly to their vehicle, her feet dragging on the ground. After the men lifted her through the back door, still wailing, the woman was strapped to a bench inside. The orderlies closed the doors, looked at each other, puffed their cheeks, raised their eyebrows and climbed into the front of the vehicle. As it pulled away the people at the windows could still hear muffled screams, then silence returned and they all looked away.

It was Monday March 10, 1913, and 49-year-old Camille Claudel, sculptor of genius and muse to Auguste Rodin, would never see the outside of an institution ever again. A week earlier her father, Louis-Prosper Claudel, had died. From a background so straitlaced it was practically encased in whalebone stays, Louis-Prosper was a career civil servant who didn’t really understand his headstrong, volatile, creative daughter. Her lifestyle was wholly unconventional for the times and utterly distasteful to him, but it was he who had helped her on her way to forging an artistic career. He would still occasionally send money, secretly because for the rest of the family Camille was an embarrassment, even a disgrace. But Louis-Prosper was her reluctant champion. Certainly he was her last protector.

The family, now headed by her younger brother Paul, diplomat, poet and rigidly devout Catholic, didn’t tell Camille her father was dead until after the funeral on March 4. The day after that he began to assemble the paperwork necessary to have his sister committed to an asylum, the dramatic scene the residents of Ile Saint-Louis witnessed from their windows.

At the outbreak of war the following year Claudel was moved to Montdevergues, near Avignon, where she would stay until her death in 1943 after 30 years in institutions. Her mother and sister never visited and never answered her letters. Paul saw her barely half a dozen times in the last three decades of her life. No family members attended her funeral.

Camille Claudel’s story is one of art’s great tragedies. While around 90 of her works survive, she destroyed many more, produced practically nothing in her 40s as her mental health declined, and she was prevented from working at all during her last 30 years. Yet the human tragedy of her life is far more affecting than the artistic one. She lived at a time when the idea that a woman could possess artistic genius was preposterous. She was also clearly very ill, developing a persecution complex that Rodin, her mentor and for many years her lover, was out to steal from her and even trying to have her killed.

With hindsight the evidence is there in her art. In 1902 she produced the chilling Perseus and the Gorgon, a marble sculpture of the founder of Mycenae holding up the severed head of Medusa, which most agree represents her and Rodin, a work cast at a time when she was writing to friends of “that malevolent hand working behind the scenes to divest me of all my friendships”.

It’s L’Âge mûr, ‘the Age of Maturity’, that weighs heaviest with both genius and suffering. Begun in 1893, the final version depicts three people, all nude. A young woman falls forward on her knees, arms outstretched, beseeching an older man whose arm is falling away as if it has just slipped from her grasp. He’s turning from her, being half carried, half supported by a much older woman whose wizened face is turned to his, as if persuading him to come along with her. Broadly it’s a depiction of the passage from youth to old age, but it also represents something much more personal and key to the acceleration of Claudel’s mental decline.

In 1876, when Claudel was 12, Louis-Prosper’s work took him to the small town of Nogent-sur-Seine, about 60 miles south-east of Paris in an area surrounded by clay of the finest quality. Camille began moulding and modelling with it, before long producing excellent busts of Napoleon and Bismarck, and thinking his daughter might have genuine promise Louis-Prosper was fortunate in being able to call upon a couple of local experts. Paul Dubois and Alfred Boucher were two of France’s leading sculptors of the 19th century and both happened to live in Nogent-sur-Seine. Boucher was impressed by the precocity of Claudel’s work and advised her to pursue further study and formal training. He introduced her to Dubois and, with women not permitted to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he recommended the Académie Colarossi instead. Enrolling at 16, Claudel soon fell in with three English women with whom she shared a studio, where Boucher would pay weekly visits to assess and advise on their work. When he relocated to Italy in 1883 he appointed in his stead his friend Auguste Rodin.

There was an immediate mutual attraction, both artistically and personally, and at the age of 19 Claudel became both Rodin’s assistant and, despite being 24 years his junior, lover. The only problem was that Rodin was in a long-term relationship with Rose Beuret and had been since before Claudel was born. So smitten was Claudel, she was convinced Rodin would leave Beuret to spend the rest of his life with her. He didn’t. Their professional relationship remained productive with Claudel producing her own pieces and contributing uncredited to some of Rodin’s finest works – it’s thought she made the feet and hands for The Burghers of Calais, for example – but away from the studio she began to display signs of paranoia. Understandably so in the circumstances, but these began to go further than envy and disgruntlement. In 1886, for example, she had Rodin sign a bizarre contract that stipulated Claudel would be his only pupil and that he would eschew involvement with all other women in favour of her. After the Salon of May 1887 in which they would exhibit their work, they would travel to Italy for six months then return to marry.

None of this came to pass and gradually Claudel tried pull away from a heartbreaking situation. There was a possible brief romance with the composer Claude Debussy around 1890 and in 1893 she moved out of Rodin’s studio and spent far less time in his company. Rodin tried to keep the relationship alive and continued to lobby on her behalf to exhibitions and galleries, but finally in 1898 Claudel told Rodin she wanted nothing more to do with him. That’s when she finished L’Âge mûr, which takes on the extra dimension of the emotionally fraught ménage à trois in which she had become embroiled.

By 1907 Claudel’s mental health was in a consistent decline as she nurtured an increasingly paranoid hatred of Rodin.

“The unsavoury individual exploits me wherever he can and shares the proceeds with his fashionable friends and cronies,” she wrote to her brother around 1907. Yet Rodin continued to push for her inclusion in exhibitions and even towards the end of his life insisted that any museum of his work also contain a room devoted to Claudel. Although her fiercely devout family displayed an unhealthy enthusiasm for her placement in a home for the insane, to the extent that when during the 1920s doctors suggested she be released into their care they flatly refused, there is little doubt Claudel’s fate was down as much to her mental illness as the mores of the time. What the art world lost as a result can only be guessed at, but her legacy and the appreciation of her genius today is greater than ever before.

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