The Tragedy of Camille Claudel
From Wuthering Heights to the Madhouse
The great Rodin lay, old and infirm, in a sickbed in his great house in Meudon just outside Paris. He muttered that he wanted to see his wife. She is right here, they said, and they brought to his side Rose Beuret, his faithful model, mistress and housekeeper for 50 years, whom he was to marry shortly afterward, two weeks before her death, and ten months before his own. No, no, he said fretfully. Not her. The other one.
The other one was at that moment 400 miles away in a madhouse in Avignon, eating only raw eggs and potatoes she boiled in their skins for fear of being poisoned by Rodin and his henchmen.
She was Camille Claudel ,who for fifteen tumultuous years before the turn of the century had shared Rodins artistic and emotional life as pupil, model, collaborator, lover. A major sculptor in her own right, her career and her sanity had both passed under a stifling black cloud. She was to live in darkness for a quarter century after Rodins death, remembered if at all as a mere footnote to the life of the giant who inaugurated modern sculpture. It would take another forty years before a revival of interest, created largely by the arduous researches of her great-niece Reine-Marie Paris, brought the world face to face with the strength and many-faceted splendor of her work, and the full tragedy of her destiny.
Tragedy is only rarely a word that properly fits the life of artists, in the sense she used the word when in their childhood she told her brother Paul that he must not be content with aspiring to be a famous playwright, he must write tragedies like the ones which Aeschylus and Shakespeare wrote. Our books are full of tormented and unhappy poets, painters, sculptors, composers who loved unwisely, who died of drink or syphilis, who blew their brains out, degraded themselves, betrayed their talents, sold out to Hollywood, suffered from poverty and incomprehension and ingratitude, wore themselves out wrestling with intractable materials in the studio, searching for patrons and publicity to keep their names alive and their rent paid. .This is the wearisome condition of humanity. But tragedy, for Aeschylus and Shakespeare as for Camille Claudel, demands more, it demands a dramatic concentration: the protagonist must march step by inevitable step, knowingly or unknowingly, upward toward the heights and downward to doom.
Paul Claudel never did write a Shakespearean tragedy, for he never seems to have acquired much knowledge of human beings. His plays are about states of the soul, surrealistic (he despised the surrealists) plays through which images float or explode with the erratic intensity of dreams. The image of his sister Camille floats through all of them through his early heroine La Jeune Fille Violaine, polluted by a lepers kiss, as through his later heroine Doña Prohèze in The Satin Slipper who goes into a chapel to toss one of her shoes into the lap of statue of the Virgin Mary so that if she takes the road to Hell she will go with a limp. (Camille had been born with one leg slightly shorter than the other, the only defect in her glorious body.)
But he never succeeded in bringing her as a living character on the stage.
The true tragedy of Camille Claudel had to be acted out in her own life. Like the commander of Kafkas penal colony, it was decreed that her sentence should be written out on her own body.
She was born in 1864 in the little town of Fère-en-Tardenois in a grim windswept corner of the Champagne country. Her brother Paul called their home Wuthering Heights, less because of the winds howling over the surrounding moors than of the storms of contention that raged through the family.
The father, Louis-Prosper, was an upper-level civil servant, an opinionated free-thinker with, said Paul, an antisocial and fierce disposition...He made the family into a closed circle inside which we fought from morning to night. The mother was a conventionally narrow-minded product of the local gentry who claimed descent from the 14th-century king of France Charles VI, known as.le Fou, the Mad. \. She hated her daughter Camille for not being the boy she wanted to replace, her firstborn, who had died in infancy. She hated her too, and encouraged her sister Louise to hate her, for being bright and wilful and irreverent and proud. Warring sisters would be a recurring theme in Pauls plays. (A stage direction in La Jeune Fille Violaine: she throws the hot ashes into her sisters eyes.)
Her father adored her for the very independence her mother abhorred, and when she showed a gift for working in clay, he gave her the best room in the house to use as a studio.
She soon had an impressive series of portrait busts to show she characteristically began with Bismarck and Napoleon - of a surprising technical competence. The earliest surviving authenticated work is a portrait of her beloved little brother Paul, aged 13, an amazingly cool, sensitive, straightforward work for a self-taught girl in a country village.
She was still a school-girl when her work was noticed and actively encouraged by Alfred Boucher, a well-known sculptor who lived in the town of Nogent-sur-Seine, where some bureaucratic whim had temporarily transferred Louis-Prosper. And at the age if 17 she bullied her not-unwilling father into moving to Paris so that she could study and work in an artistic center befitting her talents. She was by all accounts incredibly beautiful as well as incredibly talented. Paul in his old age could not help recalling her as she was in 1881, in the full glow of her youth and her genius, her splendid forehead overhanging magnificent deep-blue eyes, her mouth more proud than sensual, that mighty tuft of auburn hair falling to her hips. An impressive air of courage, of frankness, of superiority, of gaiety the air of someone who has received much.
It might well have seemed to her in the flush of 17-year-old pride that she had received the world, the world which recognizes genius and deifies it. She was producing powerful works in art school, robust dynamic works with the stamp of an original personality. Her instructor stared one day in amazement at the clay figure she was working on. You must have been studying, he said, with Monsieur Rodin. It was the first time she had heard the name.
And then there was Monsieur Rodin in the flesh striding into the classroom to fill in for the instructor, who had won a prize which enabled him to take a trip to Rome. His near-sighted eyes peered at Mademoiselle Claudel and her work, and life would never be the same again for either of them.
Rodin was more than twice her age, a rough-hewn, hard-drinking, snorting sensualist. A myopic wild boar, Paul called him. Monsieur Rodin, said the 14-year-old girl who delivered art supplies to him, pokes his beard everywhere.
He was also, for all the young artists of Paris, the greatest sculptor in the world.
Soon Camille was working in his studio, soon they were working together in rare harmony. Soon they were lovers.
Their affair naturally enough soon became the subject of brisk and witty discussion in the salons of Paris among people who, if we can believe Proust's lengthy descriptions of them, did not have a single decent bone in them. Yet oddly enough, hardly a single detail of all that discussion has been preserved in print. Something kept the scandal-mongers from going public with their juicy material. There was nothing about this fascinating couple in the gossipy press, nothing in the spicy memoirs of celebrities of what the French like to call the Belle Époque. Early biographers of Rodin speak tantalizingly of a great love in his life without deigning to provide a name.
There was a large enveloped marked Camille in Rodins desk, but when they opened it after his death it was empty.
Only a few scraps of anecdote have survived. It is known that they worked together every day. They went out at night to parties and dinners where Camille was always a center of attention with her grave quiet beauty, her sudden bursts of laughter, her lively throaty country-girl way of talking. They never lived together in Paris, though they often went together for long trips in the country. She always called him in public, Monsieur Rodin. He called her Mademoiselle Claudel. She wrote him continual love letters of which a few gay girlish lines have been discovered: I sleep naked to give me the impression that you are with me. But when I wake up, it is not the same thing.
Theirs was not the traditional all-consuming grand passion of stage and opera, they were no Tristan and Isolde; their great love was not only daily ecstasies but also daily work, daily cooperative endeavor. I do not think that there is another example in the history of the arts of two first-rate talents, richly endowed with all the temperamental excesses that are often associated with first-rate talent, combining a harmonious sexual relationship with a harmonious creative career over such an extended period of time. Fifteen years. Verlaine and Rimbaud provide the nearest approach that comes to mind. But they never so far as I know collaborated on a single poem, and their affair lasted only a few months till it was ended in a police court with Verlaine charged for shooting Rimbaud.
We know little more of the details of their artistic collaboration than we do of their private life. Everyone agrees that this was the most fruitful, the most triumphant period in Rodins career, during which he produced immense works like the Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais which established his reputation for all time. Camille was a more skilled craftsman than Rodin she could carve marble which he never did. It is said that he relied on her to do the most technically difficult parts of his figures, like the hands and feet. Exactly how much she may have contributed in the way of conception and execution to any particular piece of sculpture has to be a matter of conjecture. It stands to reason that two powerful characters like these working together must have had an enormous influence on each other. Sometimes their signed work is so similar, as in the case of Rodins Galatée and Claudels Jeune Fille à la Gerbe, that it is impossible to say which came first. The comparative tranquility of the composition might argue that it was Camille who had the original conception.
It seems fair to say that being with Claudel helped to humanize the wild boar His capacity for feeling deepened and broadened. The strength and ferocity of his early work, his savage delight in human muscle and sinew, which made him into what may be called the greatest animal artist of all time gave way to a new softness and grace. There were now some spiritual horizons beyond the pervasive presence of the flesh. You have only to compare his most famous single figure, the Brobdignagian Le Penseur with his muscles like lava flows, a thinker whose thoughts do not appear to go much beyond his next football match, with La Pensée, with its tender delicacy, its veiled sadness, which he did a few years later and which is a portrait of Camille.
Camille eventually came to think that Rodin had stolen everything from her, but by that time she was hardly responsible for what she was thinking or saying. Like all the Old Masters work in our museums, Rodins sculptures were a collective production, an industrial enterprise in which a dozen or more pairs of hands may have taken part. Much traditional art scholarship is taken up with questions of distinguishing the brush-stroke or chisel-stroke of the master from those of his students and apprentices. Rodin as Master naturally took full credit for and signed the works on which Camille and others helped him, but he was always happy to recognize her talent, and his judgment of her was nobly generous: I told her where to find the gold. But the gold she mined was her own.
In the glorious days of the 1880's and 90.s, there was no time and no need to portion out credit. The two were in love, and they were producing great art. Nothing else counted.
But the world is the world, and other things did count. There were cankers in this rose.
There were fundamental differences between the lovers which in the end were fatal to their love. Rodin had become very famous and was on the way to becoming very rich, but he remained very much a man of the people, coarse-grained, awkward in refined society, still haunted by memories of the poverty and hardship he was bred in. Camille who had had her wilful way all her young life came from immeasurably higher in the social scale. She could read Latin and Greek while he had never learned to spell French correctly. There was often a certain amount of mockery in her attitude toward him, she could produce ferocious caricatures of him as well as the nobly vigorous bust which was Rodins favorite portrait of himself. Sometimes her wayward sense of fun could take an unpleasant turn. It must have seemed like a great lark to take Rodin and his faithful old mistress-housekeeper-slave Rose Beuret to the stuffy bourgeois Claudel home and present them as Monsieur Rodin, you know mother, the world-famous sculptor and his wife. It was a heartless gesture as far as Rose Beuret was concerned, and it turned out to be blindly self-destructive as well. For when her mother found out the facts, as she was bound to do sooner or later, her rage was boundless, and so, it turned out, was her capacity to hurt her daughter.
Rose Beuret was the rock on which the Rodin-Claudel relationship foundered. She had been the companion of Rodins youth, she had shared the same background of empty purses and empty stomachs, she had shared the desperate days when there was no money to pay for heating the studio and she had to stay awake through desperate nights moistening his clay to keep it from freezing so that he could continue working on it when he got up in the morning. She had given him a son, a good-for-nothing drunkard but still his son. She kept house for him after a fashion, but the notion that she was the practical woman of the sort which unworldly geniuses need to get them through the petty necessities of daily life does not correspond very well to the facts of their life. When they went to London with a dozen trunks just as the guns were starting to boom at the start of World War I and they were preparing for what was obviously going to be a long stay, it was Rodin who opened the trunks on their arrival and discovered they were all empty because Rose had simply forgotten to put anything in them.
He must have found her impossible most of the time. She was uncouth and uneducated, he could never dream of taking her out to the literary-artistic salons and the formal dinner-parties where he was in increasing demand. Still, she had her uses. Her liked her docile acceptance of his often outrageous behavior, she asked no questions when he announced that he and Mademoiselle Claudel had to go off for a few weeks or so to the Loire country to soak up the local color for his monument to Balzac. Despite all his wild boar ways, he had a yearning for the kind of unbuttoned domesticity Rose provided. Besides, he liked her cooking. He would no doubt have preferred to go on indefinitely with both women at his side, catering to the different sides of his nature, while he tended the fires of his genius, and he was honestly distressed when Camille wouldnt see it that way.
He must have been terrified at times by Camilles single-minded self-absorption. For her, life was just what it had appeared when she and Paul had wandered through the moors and forests around Wuthering Heights and stopped to dream superhuman dreams in front of the giant grotesque rock formations they discovered there. For her, it was all or nothing. She was a great sculptor,. and she wanted fame and glory, and she wanted Rodin. She would lose them all.
The details of the breakup with Rodin are obscure, like almost everything else in their life together. No one knows for sure whether she had an affair with Debussy, whose music Rodin detested and who kept a cast of Camilles La Valse on his desk till he died. All that is certain is that Monsieur Rodin one day felt bound to make it clear that he had no intention of marrying Mademoiselle Claudel, and that after 1898 she would not let him inside her door. (Though according to one source, she used to sneak out to his house in Meudon and hide in the bushes outside to get a glimpse of him when he returned home in the evening.)
Across the sea in Norway, an interested observer was hearing all the gossip about Rodin and Camille from a painter friend in Paris. Henrik Ibsen never met either of them, but their story provided the major theme of his last play, When We Dead Awaken. The hero of this drama is a Professor Rubek, a world-famous sculptor who since the creation of one great master work some years before has been dragging on through an increasingly sterile life, turning out busts of society people. At a summer resort in the mountains he runs into Irene, a deranged woman whom he recognizes as the model for his great statue, the woman who had shared his years of creative ecstasy. In long impassioned dialogues they reveal to each other that since they parted, their lives have meant nothing, they are dead souls.
Ibsen, who believed in dramatic logic, kills off Rubek and Irene with an avalanche at the moment of their tragic awareness. Real life would not be so kind to either Rodin or Camille..
Rodin took the break-up very hard. He wept over all his friends, and though his last twenty years were a pageant of honors and glory he was showered with decorations and awards, high-society ladies threw themselves into his arms, poets like Rilke chanted his genius, he was photographed in tails and top hat as he was received by kings and popes and millionaires he could never forget the happiness he had abandoned. Years later he could not look at one of Camilles bronzes without running his hands over it and breaking into hoarse sobs.
Camille took it much harder. She disintegrated..
She lived alone, in increasing poverty and distress, for almost 15 years. She did not stop working, indeed her finest works date from this period. She experimented with new forms, new materials, and achieved highly powerful and highly original effects. In the onyx-and-bronze La Vague (The Wave), the enormous ominous wave, derived from a Japanese print, stands just at the breaking point over the heads of four naked figures dancing in the shallows below.
She could shift easily from small works, small enough to hold in your hand, like Les Causeuses, (the Gossips), those four naked women wrapped in the frivolities and mysteries of their daily chatter as they crouch in a corner formed by broken marble walls, to lifesize intensely dramatic works like LAge Mûr (Maturity) in which a limp passive aging man, no doubt Rodin, slumps into the arms of an ancient comforter or destroyer while a young woman, naked and desperate, on her knees, reaches out her lovely arms to implore him to return to his youth, his talent, to Camille.
LAge Mûr is almost painfully autobiographical. And almost all her work can be related somehow to episodes in her life or the changing states of her mind. Even the lovely head of La Petite Châtelaine has been interpreted as a portrait of the child of Rodins she lost forever when she had an abortion during a trip to the Loire. But though it is easy to make links to her life, it is not necessary to do it. With some ingenuity, the biography can be read into the works, but the works themselves are quite independent of the biography, they have their own power to excite or move or puzzle us without reference to any specific events that may have called them forth. Clotho the goddess of Fate, entangled in the threads of human destiny she is required to weave, could stand for any miserable life. Perseus and the Gorgon, one of her most ambitious if not most successful works, would be profoundly disquieting even if we did not know that the severed head of the Gorgon from which the slayer averts his eyes bears the face of Camille herself, Camille at the age of forty, prematurely middle-aged, her features thickened by disappointment and by alcohol, her eyes that once flashed so brightly now dead.
For Camilles life and her career had sunk into all the miseries of loneliness and failure. Doctrinaire feminists have blamed the failure on the male-chauvinist tissue of the art world of her time. But if you had to be a woman making a career in the arts, late nineteenth-century Paris was as good a place as had ever existed in human history. A painter like Berthe Morisot, a novelist liked Colette, could be brilliantly successful. But Camille had an added handicap: her craft demanded a considerable capital to pay for the fine marble and bronze casting necessary for serious sculpture in those days, and though she found favor with a limited circle of buyers and dealers, it was never enough, and without continual contributions from her father she would have starved. She might, in the light of certain sparkling paintings by her which have recently been dug out of old collections, have made a good living as a portrait painter, for she understood color as well as she understood form. But she was Camille Claudel who had chosen her path back in Wuthering Heights. She was not meant to be a good painter like Manet or Degas, she was shaped by destiny to be a great sculptor like Phidias or Michelangelo..
Now she was living and sculpting alone, in two cramped and increasingly tawdry rooms on the Ile St Louis. Her neighbors complained about that filthy ground-floor apartment overrun with squawling cats, and warned their children not to have anything to do with the shabby old lady who slipped out in the evening to pick up some scraps of food. She was losing contact with the world she had known. She stopped seeing her friends because, she said, I cant afford new clothes and my shoes are all worn out, but sometimes, when she received a commission and got her hands on some money, she would round up people off the street and have them in all night for a drinking bout.
She spent whole days making quick sketches of people in the streets and then making little figurines, and they are clothed, she boasted, to mark how she was getting away from Rodins compulsive fascination with nudity. Her drawers and cupboards were full of these little figures, which must have offered a unique re-creation of Parisian life in all its variety at the turn of the century. But we will never know what she looked like, for she destroyed them all.
She destroyed almost all the works of her last years of liberty, hacking up in summer what she had labored all winter to create.
In her brooding solitude, Rodin became a malevolent presence, enveloping her, trying to choke her. He was persecuting her, she said, he was sending out agents to assault her and rob her. He was putting his own name on works she had created and he was selling them for hundreds of thousands of francs while she was being dunned for the cost of plaster. Once, she said, a maid put a sleeping powder in her coffee and stole her latest work, for Rodin to sell for a small fortune as his own.
Her lithe youthful body thickened, her face at 35 was that of an elderly woman.
Her brother Paul was abroad during most of these critical years, in the diplomatic service. On one of his leaves, in 1905, he took her on a trip to the Pyrenees, and she made a remarkable plaster bust of him, the distinguished man of letters and diplomat into which the proud bright-eyed boy of her 1881 bronze had grown. When he came back in 1909 he was appalled. In Paris, he wrote in his journal, Camille insane, enormous, with a soiled face, speaking incessantly in a monotonous metallic voice.
On the second of March 1913 her father Louis-Prosper died. Three days later, Paul Claudel asked for a medical certificate permitting Camilles internment. Five days after that two burly hospital orderlies broke into the apartment on the Quai de Bourbon where she sat cringing among her cats and the accumulated filth of years, and carried her out to an ambulance which took her to the asylum of Ville-Evrard near Paris. When war broke out the next year, and the German armies were approaching Paris, the patients at Ville-Evrard were evacuated to the asylum of Montdevergues near Avignon. When after a year of war it became evident that the Germans were not going to take Paris and an order was sent to bring the inmates back to Ville-Evrard, her mother used her family connections (after all, she had the blood of an insane King of France in her veins) to keep Camille where she was, as far as possible from a family whose tranquillity might be disturbed by having a slovenly madwoman a few miles away.
She would remain at Montdevergues for 29 years.
Madhouses, she wrote once to her brother, are houses made on purpose to cause suffering...I cannot stand any longer the screams of these creatures.
There were many at the time, and still more afterwards, who asked if it was really necessary to take her away at all. And if they did, why did it have to be a miserable place like Montdevergues, a second-rate institution even by the backward standards of the time, the kind of place where it was routine for the staff to steal from the packages sent by relatives to the inmates so that they would not go hungry themselves? Some of her friends claimed she had never been crazy at all. Yes, she was paranoid, the doctors at the asylum never wavered in their diagnosis that she had a persecution mania, but the woods are full of people with persecution manias who go about their daily business in streets and shops and studios more or less satisfactorily.. As a childhood friend said, Still and all, it isnt a crime to live alone and to love cats. If it was, half the village would be locked up.
Paranoia by itself involves no impairment of the mental processes. Camille always understood what was going on around her, and was capable of writing long lucid letters, page after rational page until Rodin popped up in her train of thought and then she would rave on for page after page till she was exhausted. But she never turned violent and clearly represented no danger to any one. The doctors tried to get her interested in working again, they offered her modeling clay, but she thrust it away angrily. On at least two occasions they recommended that she should be released. But where could she be released to? Without the remittances that her father used to send her, she could not possibly support herself. She wrote pleading letters to her mother offering to abandon her share of the inheritance, asking only for a tiny room in the family house that she could creep into. The mother was adamant: she was an old woman, she said, past 75, and could not bear at any price to take back someone who had caused her so much grief and would only cause her more. She has every vice, she wrote to the director of the asylum, I do not want to see her again. She was willing to send her cookies and coffee and pay for her dentists bills, but she also enjoyed getting back at her for slights and injuries of the past, for that ignoble comedy that you acted out on me. Imagine me being naive enough to invite the great man to Villeneuve, with Madame Rodin, the concubine! And you, all sugar, you were living with him, his kept woman. I dont dare even write the words that come to my mind.
Her dear little brother Paul was now negotiating treaties with Brazil or representing the French Republic as ambassador in Tokyo and Washington, and he could hardly take a dotty old lady around with him on his travels. Nor did he have money to spare, he only became rich from his plays after Camille was dead. For whatever reason, he did nothing to help her except write to her and send his children on occasional visits to her. (The only other visitor she had in all those years was her old English schoolmate Jessie Lipscomb and she came only once.) A friend would later say that Paul Claudel never talked of his sister without the word remorse coming to his lips. A short while before he died, he noted in his diary, Always the same taste of ashes in my mouth when I think of her.: .
Abandoned by all, she clung to memories, even fabricated memories, of her family, it was all she had left. In 1939 when it was her turn to be 75 years old he wrote to Paul: At this holiday season I think ever of our dear mamma. I have never seen her since the day you took the fatal decision of sending me off to an insane asylum. I think of the beautiful portrait I did of her in the shade of our lovely garden. The large eyes in which you could read a secret pain, the spirit of resignation which reigned over her whole face, her hands folded on her knees in compete abnegation, everything spoke of modesty, a sense of duty pushed to an excess, that was our poor mother. I have never seen the portrait again (any more than I have seen her). And then the festering old wounds open again, the old paranoia comes bubbling up, and the tone turns shrill: I do not think that the odious person of whom I speak to you so often has had the audacity to attribute it to himself, as he has done my other works, it would be just too much, the portrait of my mother!
To an old friend who had popped out of the past to write her in 1935, when she had been locked up 22 years, she wrote: I live in a world that is so curious, so strange. Of the dream which was my life, this is the nightmare. The nightmare would not end till she was an old, quite mad, woman, quite cut off from communication with the world outside. Pauls children, her nephews and nieces, remember visits to the asylum to see a little old lady sitting motionless in her hospital gown and staring silently at the floor.
As for Rodin, he had died in the grim wartime November of 1917 when everything was in short supply All his money could not buy enough coal to heat the large rooms of the huge house he lived in, and he got a chill which turned into pneumonia.
Camille died in the dark winter days of another war, in another huge unheated house where there was never enough to eat.. Hospital records give the cause of death as an apoplectic stroke.
When Paul visited her a month before, all she said to him was, Mon petit Paul. He asked that her body be taken to the family vault in Villeneuve-sur-Fère, but because of wartime restrictions on transport, his request was never acted on. In 1955, after Pauls death and in accordance with his will, his family attempted to have her remains transferred to the vault. But her body had long since been moved to a communal grave and no one knew where to find her bones.
©1985 Robert Wernick
An earlier version of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, September 1985 .