So I didn’t get to see the museum outside of Paris that is finally giving the sculptor Camille Claudel her due.
Even after all these years, her name usually evokes only a vague memory that she was August Rodin’s mistress. And indeed she was.
As a young woman from the provinces, new to Paris but already accomplished, she came to be the well-established Rodin’s student, apprentice, and—eventually—his lover, even eliciting from him a promise of marriage “in the spring.”
The marriage never happened. As Camille’s art matured (look at the images on her museum’s website) she may have felt that she was on her way to the success—artistic, economic and social—that she craved, perhaps not realizing the extent to which Auguste Rodin controlled her future.
Breaking with him when he refused to leave his ancient companion, Rose, Camille quickly lost the patrons and collectors who knew her chiefly through Rodin. Living in a small ground floor apartment on Île Saint-Louis, where I have been roosting, she lost all means of supporting herself after she exhibited a three-person group depicting herself as a beautiful, naked young woman, on her knees, raising deploring hands to an ancient man who is being dragged off by a witch-like old woman.
Deeply offended by this dramatic rendition of the end of their affair, Rodin cut her off completely and, she believed, undermined her with the few collectors who still believed in her gift. In extreme poverty and despair, she took to sledgehammering her new work and was eventually consigned to a mad house by her family.She spent the last thirty years of her life there although her doctors repeatedly asked her relatives to take her away. They were not willing to do so; to them, she was not an enormously gifted sculptor. She was a social embarrassment.
Rodin’s house, which he left to the state with most of his work, is now a museum dedicated to him. When I first visited it, there were perhaps three statues of Camille’s among dozens of Auguste’s work.
I thought that was the end of her story. She was buried in a paupers’ lot and when her space was needed for another burial, her bones were thrown into a communal pit. She was as erased as it is possible for a woman to be.
Last April, after a French biography raised the possibility of her genius, a museum was created in her childhood home. A niece had, miraculously, saved some sixty of her sculptures which are now on public display, most of them for the first time. Their power is extraordinary. She is beginning to be called the top sculptor—as a woman—in twentieth-century France.
We can forgive the pigeonholing, especially when considering her extraordinary work. I will have to wait to see it till my next visit to Paris.
Then I will also search out Colette’s plaque over the apartment where she spent World War 11 in the Palais Royale, and Edith Wharton’s plaque over the apartment on the Rue de Varennes where she lived during the same period.
It may take a long time, but in the end, France comes to honoring its extraordinary women.
[Fore more of this story, please see my post, Forgiving Myself Forgiving Ourselves]