“Have pity, cruel girl, I can’t go on, I can’t spend another day without seeing you. Otherwise the atrocious madness. It is over, I don’t work anymore, malevolent goddess, and yet I love furiously. My Camille be assured that I feel love for no other woman, and that my soul belongs to you. … Ah! Divine beauty, flower who speaks and loves, intelligent flower, my darling. My dear one, I am on my knees facing your beautiful body which I embrace.”
– Auguste Rodin in a letter to Camille Claudel, 1886
She was his confidante, mistress, model, collaborator and favorite pupil. He was her mentor and the only man she ever loved. The tempestuous relationship between the French sculptors Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel lasted for almost a decade before it ended in dramatic fashion.
They met when she joined Rodin’s atelier in Paris. Claudel soon climbed the ranks, becoming Rodin’s first assistant but the two also fell in love, in spite of their 24 year age difference. Rodin, tied to his longtime partner Rose Beuret, couldn’t just leave Beuret to be with his new found love. Tears, quarrels, dramatic promises and short separations ensued. In light of the scandal, Claudel was cut off by her family and became financially dependent on Rodin. In fact, her whole future was attached to him. Professionally, she was stuck in his shadow and her work was always compared to his. Personally, she couldn’t break away from the toxic love triangle.
If this were a movie, Claudel deciding to leave Rodin and to become fully independent would have been the climactic moment that led to her establishment as a great artist. In reality, after cutting ties with Rodin her whole life fell apart. She struggled to find work and get commissions, despite Rodin’s referrals and attempts to send clients her way. Claudel’s art was deemed too sexual for a woman and too reminiscent of her mentor’s.
They both made similar sculptures and in those instances we do not know who was the originator. This creative osmosis between them took its toll on Claudel. She soon developed paranoia and started destroying her own works, afraid that Rodin and his friends were after her ideas. Eventually, she was locked away in an asylum where she spent the rest of her life, never sculpting again.
With The Abandonment (L’Abandon), Claudel was the first of the pair to imagine the erotic moment of two lovers reuniting. She had been inspired by an Indian legend in which the heroine, Shakuntala, was separated from her husband due to a dark spell. Claudel’s sculpture, conceived in terracotta in 1886 and cast in bronze in 1905, captures the ending of the story, with the couple finally reunited and tenderly embracing. It is a chaste re-encounter revealing the moment before desire fully takes over. Rodin’s Eternal Idol (1890 – 1893), on the other hand, is calmer but more erotically charged, blurring the lines between love, desire and a religious-like devotion.
Both sculptures are mementos of the deep love the French couple once shared. Unfortunately, Claudel never broke away from her mentor’s shadow but the small number of art pieces that remain stand as a testament to her own individual talent.