Camille Claudel was, without a doubt, one of the most brilliant artists of her generation. And she paid the price for it.
Born in 1864 in Fere en Tardenois in the French province of Picardy, Camille was the second child of a middle-class family. Although the family moved frequently during her childhood, Camille developed a passion for art at an early age and became an accomplished sculptor by the age of thirteen. By 1881, she was training at the Academie Colarossi in Paris under the supervision of eminent sculptor, Alfred Boucher. Whatever plans Camille had for her own future as an artist changed dramatically when she first met Auguste Rodin in 1883.
It's hard to say for sure when the two of them became lovers but Camille was quickly established in Rodin's studio and began a professional and personal collaboration with him that would last for fourteen years. Although they never lived together, Camille's relationship with Rodin alarmed her family (especially her mother who had never approved of Camille's artistic ambitions) and she was eventually forced to leave the family home as a result. While Camille contributed greatly to Rodin's career as a sculptor (many of the pieces that Rodin supposedly produced during their years together were likely her work), the opposite was certainly not the case. There are few surviving signed works produced by Camille during her years with Rodin despite it being the most fertile period of his artistic career.
Auguste Rodin was unsupportive in other ways as well. Details of their personal life together are limited but there is evidence to indicate that she became pregnant as many as five times. Whether the pregnancies were terminated by abortion or the infants given up for adoption, the end result was the same. Since Rodin was already living with Rose Beuret and showed no intention of ever leaving her, marriage was out of the question and he certainly had no intention of being monogamous with Rose or Camille. Throughout the years when he and Camille were lovers, there was a steady stream of models and other women fascinated by his growing fame as an artist. At least one noted biographer described Auguste Rodin as a "serious collector of interesting women".
By 1898, Camille had terminated her relationship with Rodin, both personally and professionally (although there is some indication that the had stopped being lovers some time previously). Working independently for the first time in her life was a major hardship for her. Although the prosperous Rodin could afford to maintain three studios with a stable of artisans working under him, Camille Claudel had to struggle to pay her own bills. The attitudes of the time towards independent women, especially women who actually worked for a living, needed to be faced as well. Her unconventional lifestyle alienated her from her mother and sister (her father remained supportive, though). Despite praise from most of the prominent critics of the time, Camille's artistic output remained slim. The long years during which she had only produced art under Rodin's name worked against her and few patrons took an interest in her work. While Rodin became increasingly rich and famous, Camille sank further into poverty. Aside from a possible romance with composer Claude Debussy, there were no other men in Camille's life.
As she grew older, Camille became increasingly unstable. In 1905, she deliberately destroyed many of her statues and began disappearing for long periods of time. She also developed acute paranoia and accused Rodin of conspiring against her and stealing her ideas. While she was reasonably lucid when working on her art, Camille became a recluse and often neglected her personal hygiene. She also became an animal hoarder and kept numerous cats in her tiny, unkempt studio. With shutters firmly drawn to keep out sunlight, Camille's entire existence focused on her art and her cats. This eccentric lifestyle (complete with erratic outbursts and suicide attempts) certainly alarmed her family although her father continued to support his wayward daughter. Three days after her father died in 1913, Camille's brother Paul and her mother made arrangements to place her in the psychiatric hospital of Ville Evrard in Paris. Two orderlies had to break into Camille's studio and drag her to the hospital by force. The reasons for committing Camille remain controversial although the spectacle she made of herself when she was hospitalized likely didn't help her cause. While she was certainly mentally unstable (and possibly suffering from schizophrenia), independent women who refused to accept societal restrictions on sexuality were often committed to hospitals during that era on the grounds of insanity. In Camille's case, she settled down quickly and even her doctors came to insist that she was well enough to be released. Despite attempts at a family reconciliation, her mother remained adamant that she be kept in the hospital.
With the outbreak of World War I, female patients in Ville Evrard were moved to safer quarters in an asylum near Avignon. The certificate admitting Camille to Montdevergues Asylum described her as suffering from a "systematic persecution delirium mostly based upon false interpretations and imagination". Despite repeated attempts by Camille's doctors, the artistic community, and the press to have Camille released from hospital, her family refused to consider the possibility. Her mother and sister also refused to visit her in hospital and actively discouraged others from visiting her as well. After Camille's mother died in 1929, her brother continued to act as her guardian and steadfastly refused to allow her release. Over the years, visitors typically described Camille as being lucid and insisted on her release but Paul Claudel opposed them. Although he visited her every few years, he always referred to her in the past tense whenever discussing her life or art with friends. Camille Claudel died on October 19, 1943 after spending three decades in the asylum. Her family refused to claim the body and she was eventually buried in a communal grave in the Montfavet cemetery. Only hospital staff attended the funeral service.
Despite her long hospitalization, Camille's reputation as a brilliant artist remains secure. While only ninety statues, paintings, and sketches survived her attempts at destroying them, they show ample evidence of her artistic genius. Paul Claudel, long notorious for his role in confining his sister, organized the first major exhibition of her work in 1951 and fascination with her complex life has spurred the publication of various biographies over the years. In 1988, a full-length biography of Camille Claudel's life was released starring Isabelle Adjani as Camille and Gerard Depardieu as Rodin. Based on a biography by Paul Claudel's great-granddaughter, the film transfers much of the blame for Camille's later breakdown on Rodin himself. While feminists have criticized the film for downplaying the role that Camille's family played in the later tragedy of her life, it received numerous awards (including two Academy award nominations).
Many of Camille Claudel's statues continue to be displayed at the Musee Rodin in Paris and traveling exhibitions have been held at numerous art galleries and museums around the world. Rodin's various sculptures of Camille are on display as well. Camille's artwork continues to fetch record prices at art auctions and she is regarded as being one of the greatest women artists of all time. Camille Claudel will not be forgotten.