Camille Claudel’s Genius and Story Shine in her Sculpture

Camille Claudel’s Genius and Story Shine in her Sculpture

An exhibit at the Los Angeles Getty Center traces the life and work of sculptor Camille Claudel.

“Boy, that really captures a feeling,” said the short-haired blond women pointing to Camille Claudel’s sculpted head of Giganti, a young man with a sharp nose, sunken cheeks and eyes looking slightly downward. “He looks arrogant but also a little depressed. Mostly, he looks like a real person.” 

The woman was part of a group visiting the Camille Claudel exhibit at The Getty Center in Los Angeles, California. Giganti was one of several sculptured busts in Portraits, the first room of the exhibit. There were also busts of Old Helen, Claudel’s sister and brother, a Young Roman and others that displayed Claudel’s intense and expressive talent. These were some of the first artworks she presented at Parisian exhibitions in the early 1880s. She was just getting started. 

Visitors admiring ‘The Mature Age’ by Camille Claudel © J. Paul Getty Trust

Claudel was a trailblazer of her time. While the late 1800s society preferred women artists to focus on painting and sketches, as a child, Claudel was fascinated with stone and soil and by age 12 sculpted human forms from clay. Her supportive father showed her work to a local artist friend who encouraged her to study further. The family moved to Paris in 1882 where Claudel attended Académie Colarossi, one of the few places open to female students and permitted them to work with nude male models. After three years, her teacher moved to Florence and he asked August Rodin to replace him as classroom instructor. That was the beginning of their association, along with their multi-faceted relationship.

Art critics and collectors in France recognized and were impressed with Claudel’s work and continue to be. But history has interpreted her career through her romantic relationship with Rodin and her mental health issues that resulted in a 30-year confinement in a psychiatric institution in the south of France. Her work is not well known outside of France, so The Getty Center and the Art Institute of Chicago co-organized this major retrospective to introduce Camille Claudel and her work to American art enthusiasts. It explores the full range of her art from impactful sculptured heads to several masterpieces to her unique miniatures created in her last troubled decade. Claudel’s talent and legacy are the key focus and visitors will enjoy learning her story while observing nearly 60 of her sculptures. 

“We put the emphasis on her art” said Anne-Lise Desmas, Senior Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Getty Museum. “The sad thing about Claudel is that her sickness and her affair with Rodin made it so that everyone talks about these two things and not about her beautiful and so meaningful art.”

“How is she able to bring such emotion into a still piece?” asked Pat Kennedy, another visitor to the exhibit also observing the sculptured faces in the first room. But he had seen nothing yet.

© J. Paul Getty Trust

The second room of the exhibit is In Rodin’s Studio and focuses on the work Claudel did as Rodin’s student and assistant. At around age 20, she learned from Rodin regarding the concepts, techniques, theory of profiles and translation of human expressions, along with the practice of sculpture. She made the hands and feet of many of his sculptures (several are on display) but she soon stood out on her own by producing and exhibiting her art. Evidently Rodin recognized and respected her talent and journalist/art critic Mathias Morhardt wrote, “He consults her on everything.” But what is obvious are the differences in style, and both artist’s versions of Crouching Woman is a perfect example. 

“I’ve seen some of their work separately but this exhibit room compares Claudel with Rodin directly and you see that she was exceptional,” said Philip Mustain, another exhibit visitor. “Rodin’s nude Crouching Woman is crunched at odd, unnatural angles with little facial expression. Claudel’s statue is also crunched but the position is supportive of her body and her half-hidden face is full of emotion. Both are good but Claudel’s is a strong woman, not a lost woman.”  

Even the museum bookstore cashier was impressed by the faces on Claudel’s work. “Some of the faces just reach out to you,” she said.

According to Desmas, the two artists were different but there was an emulation between them, a respect and admiration of each other’s work. “Even after their split, Rodin wanted a consensus and approval on what he was doing because he knew that the best eyes, the best art critic he could get was Camille Claudel” said Desmas. “They really had respect for one another, high esteem for their respective artworks and yet they did things that are different. But they approached their artwork with an intensity and passion that one could understand from the other.” 

Crouching Woman, circa 1884–1885 by Camille Claudel © Marco Illuminati

The exhibit then showcases some of Claudel’s masterpieces. The first is Sakuntala, inspired from a Sanskrit play, depicting a nude man kneeling at the feet of a nude woman who is about to fall into his arms. It’s a scene of recognition as two lovers meet each other and forgive a few wrongs. The various studies and final versions of the artwork in bronze, marble and terracotta show a variety of feelings. It is Claudel’s most famous work. 

One of Claudel’s most frequently exhibited artworks outside of France is The Waltz but there is an added story that tells of Claudel’s and any woman’s artistic restrictions of the time. Two nude lovers swirl in a dynamic dance that shows a sensuous moment, however a state-appointed art inspector rejected the nude work. Claudel added complex, flying draperies around them to cover the nudity and meet the state social requirements. Although it received high acclaim when exhibited in 1893, the French government refused to commission it in marble. 

“It must have been very frustrating for Camille,” said Susan Contreras, an exhibit visitor. “Rodin got away with many nude figures whereas she couldn’t pass with an ode to female form.”

The Age of Maturity portrays three stages of life and their connections. Old Age is leading Middle Age away from Youth’s outstretched arms. It has both a universal and deeply personal resonance for everyone who sees it and probably for Claudel. It was very well received and one critic wrote, “We can no longer call Mademoiselle Claudel a student of Rodin; she is his rival.” But the French government cancelled its order for a bronze version of the trio. 

In 1893, Claudel quit her personal and professional relationship with Rodin. She worked out of her Paris studio on Boulevard d’Italie in the 13th arrondisement and developed a new style inspired by everyday life – but in miniature. She created miniature female forms leaning against a fireplace that could then become an electric light. Busts of children were hollowed out and made into lamps. She created small images of painters, workers, women experiencing an ocean wave and women telling stories or in deep thought. Journalist Morhardt said she was lonely but productive. 

Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust

Claudel started having mental issues that affected her emotions and her work. She felt threatened by everyone and even thought that “Rodin’s gang” was going to break into her apartment and steal or copy her artwork, taking the glory and profits. She hid in her apartment and never washed, the apartment and furniture were filthy too and she had poor health. Her brother supported her, but in 1913 he realized that she had mental issues and that being on her own was not working. He admitted her to a psychiatric hospital and three medical reports agreed she had “systematized delusion of persecution.” During the 30 years she was institutionalized, she did not create any artwork as she was focused on her persecution and emotions. She died in 1943.

The end of the exhibit reports her strong legacy. France held several exhibits of her work starting in 1951 including at the Musée Rodin in Paris. She has been the subject of many books and films and, in 2017, the Musée Camille Claudel was established in her former family home in Nogent-sur-Seine. Many French museums own, showcase and celebrate her work and The Getty Center exhibit brings all the greatness and genius of Claudel to the American public.

“Camille Claudel was crazy,” said Kennedy. “She was crazy good.”

The Camille Claudel exhibit at The Getty Center ends July 21, 2024. Quit waltzing around and go see it.

Lead photo credit : Visitors at the Camille Claudel exhibition at the Getty Center © J. Paul Getty Trust

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Martha Sessums is the France Today Ambassador for San Francisco. Intrigued by France since her first stroll along the Seine, Martha and her husband often travel to Paris to explore the city and beyond. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, delighting in its strong Francophone and French culture community. She was a high-tech public relations executive and currently runs a non-profit continuing education organization.

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