Happy Times (1882–1892)
In Rodin’s Studio

In the 1880s, Rodin received several major commissions, notably the monumental Gates of Hell (in 1880) and The Burghers of Calais (in 1885). Rodin’s studio was the site of intense activity.

As master of a large and growing studio, which required many new assistants, Rodin supervised and maintained full creative control of the studio’s production and was its creative genius and guiding spirit. From conception to final execution, he was aided by collaborators: live models, mold makers and finishers for bronzes, and marble cutters, who adhered to his exacting specifications. He began a sculpture—which would eventually be cast in bronze or carved in marble—by fashioning the malleable material of clay or plaster, but his role as a modeler ended there. However, each sculpture had his constant, careful supervision; he was always in control of the final work.

Rodin did not formally take in students. The employees who assisted him, however, were sometimes called upon to complete the less important parts of his sculptures. Furthermore, Rodin advised and supervised their work and introduced them to his network in the Parisian art world. From 1884, one young artist proved herself to be the most outstandingly original and talented assistant to Rodin—Camille Claudel.

Anonymous, Rodin in his workshop. Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: Musée Rodin

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The Burghers of Calais

In 1347, during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, the French city of Calais endured a long siege. After a year had passed, six burghers, or members of the merchant class, risked their lives by indicating their willingness to offer themselves as hostages to King Edward III of England. This gesture caused the English queen to intervene; the attack on Calais ceased and the lives of the burghers were spared. In 1884, Calais sought to reestablish its identity by commissioning Rodin to create a sculptural monument depicting these fourteenth-century heroes.

Creating this monumental group required many assistants in Rodin’s studio; one of the new, aspiring sculptors brought in to work on The Burghers of Calais was Camille Claudel.

Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais, The Collection of the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia. Photo: Rodin Museum, Philadelphia

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Claudel or Rodin?
The two artists exchanged preliminary models of plaster or terra cotta (clay) in the workshop. Sometimes these works resemble each other to such an extent that it is impossible to distinguish whose hands actually made them. Claudel kept, among her own works, fragments modeled by Rodin, such as the Head of Avarice. She also left plasters that she had sculpted in Rodin’s studio. Therefore, unintentionally, some of Claudel’s works were cast in bronze after Rodin’s death and given his signature. Two of these works are Head of a Slave and Laughing Man.

Camille Claudel, Head of a Slave, About 1887. Bronze. Rodin Museum, Philadelphia. Photo: Rodin Museum, Philadelphia / Murray Weiss

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Claudel spent long hours assisting Rodin in the workshop. A certain familiarity sprang up between the two artists, who looked at one another with affection, which grew into love. In their personal letters to each other, he and she always refer to her as “Camille,” while he is called “Rodin,” never “Auguste.”

Claudel was young and beautiful, and Rodin asked her to pose. The resulting portrait sculpture has an almost childlike face with an enigmatic expression. Rodin produced this face (through the use of molds) in multiple editions in plaster, terra cotta, bronze, and pâte de verre. The impression of a strong personality and yet traces of youthful fragility are expressed in these portraits.

In Claudel’s portraits of Rodin, the face of her lover appears young, although he was in his mid-forties. The wide forehead and strong nose convey the master’s strong will and intense creative power.

Camille Claudel, Auguste Rodin, 1892. Plaster coated with wax. Musée Ziem, Martigues. Photo: Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon / Alain Franchella
Auguste Rodin, Camille Wearing a Bonnet, About 1884. Terracotta. Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: Musée Rodin / Adam Rzepka

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“Camille, My Beloved, in Spite of Everything”

Camille Claudel inspired a passionate desire in Rodin, but the sculptor was inundated by workshop duties, the society dinners so vital to his success, and, above all, his commitment to his long-term love, Rose Beuret. Beuret was his former model with whom he shared his home and maintained an old but comfortable relationship for over twenty years. Even if he had wanted to give himself entirely to his younger mistress, these circumstances prevented him from doing so. Claudel was torn by jealousy and a pressing need for independence. Her moods could be either pleasant or distant. Overwhelmed by her mood swings, his own complex personal life, and many professional commitments, Rodin experienced periods of profound discouragement and growing unhappiness.

The two artist-lovers’ similarities and differences are sensed even in their works. For both Claudel and Rodin, their images of couples betray their emotions: passionate lovers, contrite companions, or imploring sweethearts. “Camille, my beloved, in spite of everything,” Rodin wrote in 1886. “I am at the end of my tether. I can no longer go a day without seeing you.”

Camille Claudel, Vertumnus and Pomona, 1905. Marble. Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: Musée Rodin / Erick and Petra Hemerg

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A Mutual Passion

Rodin also inspired a passionate desire in Claudel. In her most prolific period, the late 1880s, Claudel’s works reflect her feelings that were “in a passionate embrace with the imagination,” according to her brother, the writer, Paul Claudel.

Camille Claudel’s large Sakuntala was an ambitious statement. The sculpture was begun in 1886, and she worked tirelessly on it, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for two years. It was exhibited with considerable success in Paris in 1888, along with The Waltz, begun just after it. Claudel also received critical favor from the public and artists, including Rodin. One critic, however, found fault that Claudel’s Sakuntala too strongly echoed Rodin’s Shade, which is also a female figure with one knee bent, the other arm hanging vertically.

Camille Claudel, Sakuntala, 1888. Painted plaster. Musée Bertrand, Châteauroux. Photo: L’Image Pro
Auguste Rodin, Shade, Before 1886. Bronze. Musée des beaux-arts, Orléans. Photo: Musée des beaux-arts d’Orléans

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Camille Claudel the Portraitist

Camille Claudel executed more than twenty sculptural portraits between 1882 and 1905. Her models were most often from her immediate surroundings: friends, relatives, and professional acquaintances she shared with Rodin.

By taste and training, Claudel was inclined to follow the path of realism in her sculpture, yet she occasionally relied on stylistic references drawn from the past. Paul Claudel as a Child, her brother, and Ferdinand de Massary, her brother-in-law, show the influence of Italian Renaissance portraits.

In Louise Claudel, her sister’s graceful smile and expression of intimate feelings recall French sculpture from the previous century. Claudel approached the realism of Rodin in her busts of the artist and members of her family. Claudel, however, was not interested only in her models’ likenesses. Patiently observing their individual character, she also sought to capture the soul behind the face.

Camille Claudel, Paul Claudel as a Child, About 1885. Bronze. Musée Bertrand, Châteauroux. Photo: L’Image Pro
Camille Claudel, Ferdinand de Massary, 1888. Plaster. Private collection, France. Photo: Ph. Sebert
Camille Claudel, Louise Claudel, 1886. Terracotta. Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille. Photo: Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille / Hervé Lewandoski

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The Stays at l’Islette

In the summer of 1891, Claudel and Rodin stayed at the château of l’Islette, in the Loire Valley, twelve miles from Tours. There, away from the eyes of the city, they found a discreet refuge, where their love could develop in happiness and serenity.

Rodin was then working on a new commission for the monument to the famous French author Honoré de Balzac. Rodin joined Claudel at the château as often as he could, whenever his studies of the writer (a Tours native) brought him to the area.

In the calm environment of l’Islette, Camille undertook a portrait of the granddaughter of the château’s owner. La Petite Châtelaine was begun during the time of Claudel’s intimacy with Rodin and completed after their physical relationship ended. This work expresses Claudel’s increasing desire for artistic independence in the mid-1890s. The three summers spent in this peaceful retreat marked a turning point in Claudel’s artistic life.

Camille Claudel, La Petite Châtelaine, 1896. Marble. Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André-Diligent, Roubaix. Photo: La Piscine—Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André-Diligent, Roubaix / Arnaud Loubry

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