Becoming Rodin’s Lover: Camille Claudel and Mental Illness

“Why have there been no great women artists?” feminist art historian Linda Nochlin asked in her 1971 essay of the same title. She explained that, while there have absolutely been women artists of skill, character, and genius, they have struggled against the social and institutional frameworks that encouraged their male counterparts. One of these women, the French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864–1943), is the subject of Heather Webb’s historical romance novel Rodin’s Lover. Claudel’s “volatile love affair”1 with Auguste Rodin, the masterful sculptor who acted as her teacher, includes intellectual creativity, forbidden behavior, and emotional intensity, which all make this true story ripe for adaptation in the genre.

Camille Claudel, The Wave, 1897, onyx and bronze, Musée Rodin, Paris, France. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Yet I began Rodin’s Lover with some apprehension — I knew that Claudel, after 1905, became unable to create new work due to a mental illness that limited her ability to care for herself. While male artists with mental illnesses, like Vincent Van Gogh, have had their suffering glorified as a component of their success, Claudel was summarily dismissed as a madwoman. Documents related to her commitment, which began in 1913, describe her symptoms as a “systematic persecution delirium based upon false interpretations and imagination.”2 Writing about Claudel often presents her illness as a foregone conclusion, the result of her inability to fit within the appropriate strictures of her era. Indeed, Claudel, a fiercely opinionated woman, repeatedly transgressed the boundaries of her bourgeois, conservative, provincial upbringing. Though spirited heroines are a hallmark of romance novels, I wondered: how would Rodin’s Lover handle Claudel’s symptoms and eventual decline?

I knew, also, that scholarly literature has often approached Claudel as a lovesick, tragic figure. Until feminist art historians in the 1970s and 80s dug into Claudel’s work, she remained little known. The scholars and critics that did know her work declared that her sculptures showed too much “influence” from Rodin, suggesting that he played a substantial role in their creation, and thereby erased her capacity for artistic genius. A visual comparison of their sculptures supports the idea that he did greatly influence her work, but critics have used this to insist on his superiority as an artist rather than suggesting that they both helped to form a new style. Both sculptors used passionate poses and gestures to convey emotion, and they created rippling surfaces that retain evidence of the sculptor’s touch. Together, they rejected the polished realism that the art establishment preferred.

Through its focus on Claudel, Rodin’s Lover begins more like a biography than a romance novel. Webb spends these early chapters showing us Claudel at work, whether gathering clay, finding life models, negotiating with other female sculptors to share her studio in Paris, or molding her clay maquettes. We learn that her old-fashioned mother believes her daughter to be a disgrace, and Claudel still refuses to yield. She does not meet Rodin until Chapter 8, when a friend of his asks him to take her on as a student. He refuses at first, saying, “the women I have tutored do not commit themselves to their studies as heartily as they should and rarely advance.”3 Convinced by his friend that Claudel will not disappoint, Rodin soon finds himself enamored with her passion for her art and her ideas. From there, the novel presents their relationship as a slow but steady burn. First, they begin to view each other as colleagues, giving each other advice and celebrating professional successes. Webb perhaps gives Rodin more credit than he deserves by describing repeatedly how turned on he is by Claudel’s ability to give him constructive criticism. Only after establishing their professional relationship do they embark on a romantic affair, meeting after hours in Rodin’s massive studio or attending parties with famous bohemian writers and artists where no one will judge their illicit liaison. As Camille begins to hear voices and have delusions that people chase her, Rodin finds it increasingly difficult to convince her he wants to help her. They fight again and again, but reunite, even travelling outside the city where they can work and make love without interruption. Ultimately, Camille fears too much that her work will only remain in Rodin’s shadow, and Rodin gives up on her, leaving her frustrated family to manage her well-being.

Camille Claudel, The Waltz, 1889-1905, bronze, Museum of Art and Industry of Roubaix, France. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Through our modern eyes, their relationship must seem, at minimum, problematic because Claudel’s desperate wish to be a sculptor made it difficult to refuse Rodin’s attention. Because of the costs of materials like bronze and marble, becoming an independent sculptor remained virtually impossible without receiving commissions from the French state. Her gender meant that she could not access the state-run educational institutions and prize competitions that guaranteed success. Still rigidly focused on protecting morality in the wake of the empire-toppling Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune in 1870–1871, the new Third Republic fervently policed gendered behavior, making Claudel’s highly detailed and overtly sexual depictions of the human body, such as The Waltz, too risqué for government patronage. Rodin, twenty-four years older than Claudel, had a long-term mistress at home and a reputation for sleeping with his female models, but he had the power to elevate her work in the eyes of critics and government evaluators. Rodin’s Lover accurately describes how she needed his recommendation, if not necessarily his romantic affection, to succeed as a sculptor.

In the novel, Claudel’s romantic feelings for Rodin grow stronger around the same time that her symptoms of mental illness begin to appear. The first time they kiss happens just before the first time that she hears a voice whispering to her. In one minute, Webb writes, “She pulled him closer and pushed hungrily against his mouth.” Then, “in a swift movement, she tore away from him, gasping for air. ‘Did you say something?’ She looked past him to the corners of the room and the windows, then rubbed her temples.”4 Paranoid and afraid, Claudel then throws Rodin out of her studio, leaving him hurt and confused. This conflict serves as the first in a series of ups and downs for the lovers as Claudel’s mysterious voices become more and more pointed in their critiques.

Using mental illness as a plot device to make their relationship so dramatic should not be excused. However, the voices that Claudel hears in Rodin’s Lover convey the intelligence through which she approached the process of building her career and managing the barriers that could limit her success. Employed as a practicien, a contract marble carver, in Rodin’s studio, she works on one of his sculptures while thinking about her own, and the voices tell her, “You are a thief. You copy Auguste’s work. You are nothing, and they know it.”5 Much later, near the end of their relationship, Rodin comes to see her in her studio, knowing that she has lost a meaningful commission as well as the approval of her family. By this point, Claudel can explain that a voice “taunts her,” and so Rodin sweeps her into his arms, saying “Let my voice be louder” and “Je t’aime.” The voice responds: “His voice will stamp out your own. He sets you on fire and watches you burn in agony.6 Because Webb has only ever shown us Claudel as a serious artist, immersed in every part of creating her sculptures, these voices seem almost rational. They portray a cynical, practical Claudel, the opposite of the overly emotional follower of Rodin found in scholarship.

(Courtesy Penguin Random House)

At the end of Rodin’s Lover, Webb flashes forward to March 1913 as Claudel’s brother Paul, a famous playwright, commits her to the Ville-Evrard Asylum at the age of 48. The novel does not explain that the family did this by taking advantage of a law that allowed commitment of a family member with a medical certificate from any doctor, a request that Camille’s suspicious neighbor was happy to fulfill for Paul. It also does not explain how Claudel then lived to the age of 79, surviving thirty years in an institution entirely cut off, at her family’s cruel insistence, from all visitors and letter-writers who knew her talent. Instead, Webb returns to Rodin who, hearing of Claudel’s situation, writes her a love letter promising to safeguard her work – the true source of their romance – and then melodramatically throws the letter into the fire.

Nochlin, in that landmark 1971 essay, declares that women artists could succeed only if they exhibited “‘masculine” attributes’ of singlemindedness, concentration, tenaciousness and absorption in ideas and craftsmanship for their own sake.” Claudel did not quite succeed in her own time, but we know that she certainly had all of these qualities. In Rodin’s Lover, Webb interprets Camille Claudel in a way that emphasizes those traits and restores dignity to her work. She does not ignore the facts or minimize the strength of the romantic bond between these artists, but she makes clear that, for Claudel, her own work came before her lust for Rodin. She insists on a Claudel who fought as long as she could to prove herself as an artist. After years of wishing that Claudel would be seen as a true equal to Rodin, I was delighted to find that vision of her in a romance novel – my own sort of happy ending.

Further Reading

Ayral-Clause, Odile. Camille Claudel: A Life. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002. Ayral-Clause’s biography of Claudel is not the first, but it is the most straightforward. A previous biography, Reine-Marie Paris’s Camille: The Life of Camille Claudel, Rodin’s Muse and Mistress (New York: Seaver Books, 1988) is foundational, but flawed.

Camille Claudel and Rodin: Fateful Encounter, trans. David Wharry. Paris: Hazan, 2005. This exhibition catalogue puts their artwork head to head with contributions from a number of scholars who have shaped Claudel’s reputation since the reemergence of her work in the 1980s.

Anne E. Wagner. “Rodin’s Reputation,” in Eroticism and the Body Politic, ed., Lynn Hunt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991: 191–242.

Notes

  1. This phrase is used on the back of the paperback edition of Rodin’s Lover. Return to text.
  2. Quoted in Odile Ayral-Clause, Camille Claudel: A Life (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002): 210. Return to text.
  3. Heather Webb, Rodin’s Lover: A Novel (New York: Plume, 2015): 63. Return to text.
  4. Webb, 129. Return to text.
  5. Webb, 187. Return to text.
  6. Webb, 259. Return to text.

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