“There is always something absent that torments me.” Camille Claudel, letter to Rodin, 1886
Being a muse is not as easy as it looks. With the opening of France’s first national museum dedicated to the talent of Rodin’s long-suffering assistant and mistress, Camille Claudel (1864-1943) has finally received the recognition that she has long deserved.
Museum dedicated to the work and times of Camille Claudel
Thanks to the museum, the small town of Nogent-sur-Seine in southeastern France, just an hour-and-a-half drive from Paris (and less than an hour by train departing daily from Gare de l’Est) and where Camille spent three years of her life with her family, is poised to join other artist-centered “Day Trips From Paris” destinations such as Monet’s Giverny and Van Gogh’s Auvers-sur-Oise.
One does not think about Camille Claudel without inextricably tying her to Auguste Rodin. The pair met when Rodin had agreed to supervise a course for sculptor Alfred Boucher (well-represented in the museum), Claudel’s instructor, in his absence. It is said that the teacher fell in love with his 18-year-old student almost instantly. Their passionate affair lasted ten stormy years, with Camille finishing the last thirty years of her life confined to a mental home by her younger brother Paul and her doctor.
To put Claudel’s work in context, a good part of the museum is devoted to pivotal teachers, influencers and artists in her life. Works by other Rodin assistants, such as Jules Desbois (1851-1935), François Pompon (1855-1933) and Antoine Bourdelle show how, like Camille Claudel, they may have started by emulating Rodin, but went on to find their own personal styles.
Rodin’s work is approached from the angle of the major commissions on which Camille Claudel worked as an assistant, or on which Rodin consulted her, such as “The Gates of Hell,” “The Burghers of Calais” and his “Monument to Balzac.” Through a series of photographs we can follow the progress of these works, including some Rodin personally commissioned to be displayed alongside his sculptures.
One of Claudel’s first sculptures, “Crouching Woman” (1884-85) was inspired by a work on the same subject by Rodin (1881-1882). Comparing “Eternal Spring” and “The Eternal Idol” both by Rodin, and “Sakountala” and “Abandonment,” both by Claudel, shows shared inspiration but differing emotions.
In 2003, Nogent-sur-Seine hosted an exhibition dedicated to Camille Claudel. It was such a success that municipal authorities decided to expand the Dubois-Boucher Museum and create a museum dedicated to Camille Claudel. The project gained momentum in 2008 when the town made three major acquisitions: the Claudel House, around which the new museum would be built; “Perseus and the Gorgon,” Claudel’s only work in marble purchased with heritage funding and commercial sponsorship; and the major private collection of Camille Claudel’s works acquired from Reine-Marie Paris and Philippe Cressent.
As holder of the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work, the Camille Claudel collection kept expanding as and when works came on the market.
Camille Claudel, a dramatic heroine
Today, Camille Claudel is seen as a dramatic heroine symbolizing the position of women in the late 19th and early 20th century. But above all she is a leading artist on a global level who established links between Naturalism and Symbolism, the neo-Florentine movement and Art Nouveau. The collection includes her first work, “Old Hélène,” shown at the French Artists’ Salon in 1882, to her last bronzes reproduced by Eugène Blot from 1905.
As versatile and talented in her own right Claudel was, her legacy will be forever overshadowed by Rodin. It is worth noting that the opening of Camille Claudel’s museum this year coincides with the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death, marked by an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris that ends July 31st.
Sadly, Camille destroyed much of her art work – sculptures, drawings and sketches – of which only about ninety survive. The Musée Camille Claudel, scheduled to open on March 26, 2017, will show approximately half of these works.
Musée Camille Claudel, 10 Rue Gustave Flaubert, 10400 Nogent-sur-Seine www.museecamilleclaudel.fr
Paris train: Depart Gare de L’Est to Nogent-sur-Seine (10-minute walk from station)
Note: If driving, Nogent-sur-Seine is on the way to the magnificent medieval town of Troyes, gateway to the Champagne region.
Barbara Pasquet James is a U.S. lifestyle editor, speaker, and urban explorer who writes about food fashion and culture, from Paris. She is known for helping launch, write and edit USA Today’s City Guide To Paris and can be contacted via her photo blog focusonparis.com