NOGENT-SUR-SEINE, France — After a losing battle with both mental illness and institutionalized sexism, one of the greatest French sculptors of the 19th century died in obscurity. The reputation of Camille Claudel has, however, been on the rise again since the 1980s. And a sleepy French town some 100km from Paris is now determined to reestablish the position she once enjoyed in the capital.
That town is Nogent-sur-Seine. Gaze down at its mighty green river and your mind can imagine the time when Claudel lived here. Both architecture and atmosphere along the tow path in either direction suggest a pre-modern pace. The only disruption is a distant pair of fat smokestacks; a nuclear power plant is one of the town’s current claims to notability. Renewable energy is among the chief industries here now. In 1876, when Claudel moved to Nogent-sur-Seine at the age of 12, sculpture was in vogue.
Sculptors Joseph-Marius Ramus, Paul Dubois, and Alfred Boucher all had connections with the town. They were joined by the teenage Claudel, who already showed a prodigious talent for working with the local clay. Boucher recognized her gifts and assumed the challenging task of persuading her lower-middle-class parents that modelling, chiseling, and casting were suitable activities for a young woman of the times. The Claudels eventually agreed to let their daughter join the Colarossi Academy, one of Paris’s only art schools for women.
Her rise was swift. She rented a studio in Paris and began working in the naturalist style of her mentor Boucher. When he left for Florence, he passed on his students to Auguste Rodin, who at once recognized Claudel’s talent. The two deeply influenced one another over the course of a seven-year affair. Claudel exhibited four pieces to wide acclaim, including a bust of Rodin that’s as remarkable for its expressive life as for its biographical relevance. In 1891 she became a jurist with the National Society of Fine Arts, something of a boys’ club at the time.
This story does not end well. By the time she was 22, Claudel was living in sin with Rodin. Signs suggest that the two shared ideas, visions, and a passion for art, as well as each other. There is talk of more than one child given up for adoption. There is proof that Claudel had an abortion. Rodin made promises to leave his life partner, Rose Beuret, but he never did. It’s testimony to Claudel’s strength of character that she left him and struck out on her own. At the turn of the century, she was engaged in sculpture on her own terms.
She enjoyed the support of both an influential critic, Mathias Morhardt, and a wealthy sponsor, the Countess de Maigret. In 1898 she was profiled in Le Mercure de France. It must have seemed as if autonomy was possible for a female artist in France. Unfortunately, Claudel was not to remain at the peak of her powers for long.
As she faced increasing professional obstacles, her mental health deteriorated. She became a recluse, her new base on the Île Saint-Louise a place of squalor. And she began to harbor suspicions about her famous ex-lover. Rodin was, she said, stealing her ideas and even her finished artwork. He was conspiring to block her career. In a moment of crisis, she took a hammer to every last unsold piece of work in her studio. And so, in 1911, she was diagnosed with delirious psychosis and committed by her brother to an asylum. She remained there for the rest of her life.
Decades later, while art historians are rediscovering the liquid grace and technical facility of Claudel’s 90 remaining artworks, the romance and tragedy of her story have managed to transcend her niche within 19th-century art. The sculptor has inspired a novel, two movies (in 1988 and 2013), and a number of biographies, including a highly recommended one by Odile Ayral-Clause. Most recently, a serious-minded regional museum has been constructed in the town she once called home. Musée Camille Claudel opened last month and is home to 43 of the artist’s sculptures, the largest collection anywhere in the world.
From the street, you might not know the institution was there. Built around the townhouse of Claudel’s youth, the museum is clad in a brick similar to that found all over town, a sensitive approach by architect Adelfo Scaranello. Only the plate-glass windows suggest that fine art is on offer at this municipal address. From the foyer, one can see a thicket of plaster in the main gallery, but thanks to the whiteness of the walls and of the materials, the tone is elegiac. You might even detect a note of national atonement in this sober institution. It’s always upsetting when an artist dies without a proper eulogy. From her bed in the asylum at Montdevergues, Claudel had 30 years to see the silent end coming.
On the ward, she refused to sculpt. Perhaps the context was all wrong; after all, as the new museum attests, her proper place was among the leading sculptors of her time. The displays demonstrate how she forged links between naturalism, symbolism, Art Deco, and the obscure, delicate Neo Florentine movement as practiced by Paul Dubois (who may also have mentored the young Claudel). Pieces by Dubois, Boucher, Rodin, and a host of contemporaries are all on view, but the gallery layout builds up to five consecutive rooms filled with works by Claudel. Presented in this way, one can see how she outshone so many of her male counterparts. Her compositions are more inventive and her models more fluid; her works offer more drama and pathos than figurative verisimilitude usually allows for. Of particular interest is “Crouching Woman” (c. 1884–85), which shows its subject in a defensive brace position, rather than indulging the eroticism favored by her male colleagues. It’s an eloquent riposte to Rodin, who treated the same subject three years earlier.
This vigor of expression, which she shared with her former mentor and lover, lifts Claudel out of the 19th-century morass of marketable figurines. Rodin offered guidance, but many assistants passed through his atelier, and none other seems to have possessed such a similar sensibility. He may never have left his lifelong companion, and he may have had his share of female admirers, but Claudel was perhaps was his greatest love. Both of their treatments of separation are heartbreaking: Rodin with “Eternal Idol” (1890–93) and “The Adieu” (1898); Claudel with “Sakountala” (1888) and “Old Age” (1890–1907). Whether or not they had living offspring, their relationship gave the world a suite of some of the most eloquent studies of love found in realist sculpture.
By the time we reach the Camille Claudel Collection in gallery 11, Rodin is just a reference point, notable for his two tender busts of the resident genius. She in turn models him, in a bronze as darkly energetic and grave as anything produced in Paris at the fin de siècle. The challenge for visitors to this somewhat academic museum is to make an appraisal of Claudel the artist, not the doomed lover. And yet, if it weren’t for the extracurricular details on her CV, we might never have rediscovered the talent which propelled a woman into the heart of the male-dominated world of 19th-century art.
Musée Camille Claudel is located at 10 Rue Gustave Flaubert (Nogent-sur-Seine, France) and open to the public Tuesday through Sunday.