A Woman to Know: Camille Claudel

The events of my life would fill more than a novel. It would take an epic, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and a Homer to tell my story. — Camille Claudel

(image via Wikimedia)


In 1884, when she was 20 years old, Camille Claudel left her family home in the French countryside to begin an apprenticeship with a renowned sculptor: Auguste Rodin. She assisted in his workshop, shaping hands and feet on his works, but she also modeled for him. Her figure is now memorialized in a series of busts and bronzed characters. The two became lovers, with Camille eventually leaving her commune of female artists to live full-time with the artist in his residence (alongside his wife and his other lover). As Camille grew in talent, however, Auguste resented her presence. Following an illegal abortion in 1892, the two ended their relationship — and Camille became convinced that Auguste persuaded prominent funders to withdraw their support of her bronze work.

But Camille continued to work, designing pieces for the homes of wealthy patrons and fellow artists (even creating a dancers sculpture for the home of her rumored lover, the composer Claude Debussy). She worked with Jesse Lipscomb and other female artists in a shared studio space, where she took inspiration from mythology.

In 1905, though, more than 10 years after her break with Rodin, something in Camille changed. She entered a dark manic period, later diagnosed as symptomatic of her latent schizophrenia. She accused Rodin of plagiarizing her art and conspiring to murder her. In the throes of mental illness, she destroyed much of her work. Today, only 90 pieces remain.

In 1913, her family had her committed to an asylum, back in the countryside where she grew up. The medical record shows doctors encouraged her brother, Paul, and her sister, Louise, to release Camille, and when her friend Jesse visited in 1929, she begged Paul to allow Camille to leave the institution. But Camille would stay there for another 30 years. Her brother visited seven times, her sister once. She died there in relative obscurity, with much of her work still in the care of the Rodin estate.

In 2017, the Claudel family home became the Musée Camille Claudel, a space for her remaining art to stay safe — and recognized.

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