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Rodin's lover, sculptor Camille Claudel, gets new museum

Jake Cigainero
March 24, 2017

French sculptor Camille Claudel was Auguste Rodin's lover - and spent her art career in his shadow. Nearly 75 years after her death, France is finally recognizing Claudel with a national museum.

Camille Claudel Museum
Image: M. Illuminati

French sculptor Camille Claudel, who was more famous for being Rodin's tragic lover and collaborator than for her own work as an artist, always lived in the shadow of the larger-than-life Rodin. Claudel will finally get her own recognition as an important French artist when her childhood home in Nogent-sur-Seine (southeast of Paris) opens later this month as a national museum dedicated entirely to her work. The museum's opening comes at the same time as the centenary of Rodin's death, which will be celebrated in other museums across France and internationally.

The new Camille Claudel Museum, which opens to the public on March 26, is located 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Paris in the quaint town of Nogent-sur-Seine, where Claudel lived for three years from the age of 12. This is where she made her first sculptures.

The town has transformed the Claudel family home and extended the structure to create a three-story 1,283-square-meter (nearly 14,000-square-foot) exhibition space. The architect Adelfo Scaranello designed a museum with modern appeal that blends with local architecture with its handmade clay bricks. 

Camille Claudel
Camille Claudel never saw fame and died in a mental hospitalImage: musée Rodin

The museum is a reincarnation of the town's gallery initiated in 1902 by Claudel's first mentor, Alfred Boucher.

A way to 'separate Claudel from Rodin'

Claudel's great-niece Reine Marie Paris says the museum is official recognition of "her art and her genius."

"Even though it's late recognition," Paris says, "It's also a way to separate her from Rodin." 

Paris has dedicated most of her life to promoting and preserving Claudel's legacy. She has written a biography, organized more than 70 exhibitions and collected her aunt's work bit by bit. It's her collection that she sold to the town Nogent-sur-Seine for the new museum. 

"It's a great honor for her and for me since I have worked on Camille for so many years," she said.

When visitors enter the museum they are greeted by one of Claudel's sculptures that is symbolic of her: damaged, neglected and forgotten, an artist unfulfilled. Visitors have to wait still longer to see the rest of her work, as they must first traverse the history of 19th-century sculpture through the lens of important local artists, Rodin, and the evolution of the art before reaching Claudel's throne room.

Claudel: Rodin's mistress, model, muse, assistant

The museum pays homage to sculptors linked to Nogent-sur-Seine, such as Boucher, who first recognized Claudel's talent. It was also Boucher who introduced her to Rodin when he asked the larger-than-life sculptor to take over his classes where Claudel was a student.

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss
Rodin, whose "The Kiss" is pictured here, died 100 years ago in 1917Image: picture-alliance/Pixsell

Visitors also encounter impressive works by artists such Paul Dubois and his plaster for a Joan of Arc statue, whose horse steals the scene with its strained face.

It's inevitable that the museum explores Claudel's complex relationship with Rodin through each of their versions of "Crouching Woman" and sculptures of couples embracing. She was his mistress, model, muse and assistant for 10 years.

"Her work was always seen as a product of being Rodin's student," says Cécile Bertran, the museum's curator. "Naturally she had this Rodin sensibility. They shared a natural artistic affinity. But Rodin was known first."

Although Rodin promoted her, she resented not being able to win public commissions.

One can feel Claudel's heartbreak in "The Age of Maturity," an allegorical sculpture in which a young woman reaches for an older man who is embraced by a mature woman. When Claudel and Rodin ended their relationship, the elder mentor went to live with his lover who was much older than the young sculptress. 

When Claudel and Rodin said adieu

Rodin's own tender parting homage is seen in "L'adieu" (The Goodbye), in which he sculpts Camille's melancholy face perhaps from their final moments together.

After the breakup, Camille grew increasingly paranoid that Rodin was spying on her to steal ideas. Today there is a limited scope of her oeuvre, as she destroyed many of her own works and plasters. Her family confined her to a mental institution when she was 48.

Camille Claudel | The Gossips
"The Gossips" is said to have marked Claudel's divergence from Rodin's styleImage: M. Illuminati

One of Claudel's signature pieces, "The Gossips," signals her asserted effort to diverge from comparisons to Rodin and escape the curse. 

"It's a miniaturized scene with a monumental effect," Bertran says. "We have the impression we hear the gossip."

The onyx and bronze sculpture was made between 1893 and 1905, before Claudel was known to be ill. When suggested that perhaps the harem of women are the paranoid whispers in her head that drove her mad, Bertran replies, "That's funny. Someone else also said that. Maybe she made it when it was all just beginning."

Buried in a common grave

Though it was Camille's association with Rodin that blocked her public recognition as an original artist in her own right, their tumultuous affair helped forge her legend that has given her story and work longevity.

The Rodin museum in Paris has been the principle home for her surviving work with a collection of more than 30 pieces. The new museum has 43 of Claudel's works on display, as well as some temporary loans.

Paris says her grandfather, Paul Claudel, never spoke to her about his sister Camille. She says her mother once went to see her in the hospital and reported her aunt seemed totally normal and had asked questions about the family. But Paul told Paris's mother that Camille always returns to her ravings.

Camille Claudel lived 30 years in an asylum until her death in 1943, though doctors suggested to her family that she could be released. She was ultimately buried in a common grave. 

The biographer Odile Ayral-Clause notes in the book "Camille Claude: A Life," that the artist's brother Paul neglected his sister's burial but made very detailed instructions for his own. Her bones lie mixed with others near the mental hospital in Montfavet.

Though she never had any commissions for public sculptures to stand as a testament to her genius, Camille Claudel has the ultimate monument to her life and work today: a museum in her own name.