Stormy Times (1892–1899)
Osteology of Old Women

At the Paris Salon of 1893, the public was astonished to discover a scrawny, old female nude tangled in her long hair: Camille Claudel’s Clotho.

In the master’s studio, three sculptors bluntly took up the theme of physical old age in women (specifically, osteology: the study of bone formation). First, Rodin created The Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife, completed in 1889. His collaborator Jules Desbois was working on Misery at almost the same time. Then, Claudel executed Clotho. A comparison of the three works shows how, in the same studio, new ideas take form and evolve differently, according to the individual viewpoints of the artists. “The only ugliness in art is that which has no character,” Rodin said. In these works, Rodin and his studio broke with the nineteenth-century tradition of portraying idealized subjects.

Rodin unflinchingly observed the aged body. Desbois showed the nude old woman in an attitude of shamed propriety, letting the last tattered rags of poverty fall away. Claudel created a hallucinatory allegory of Fate holding the thread of Life.

Camille Claudel, Clotho, 1893. Plaster. Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: Musée Rodin / Adam Rzepka

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The Age of Maturity

By 1893, Claudel and Rodin were no longer working together or seeing each other. Frightened off by the younger woman’s demands for commitment, Rodin kept his distance. He went to live in the country with Rose Beuret, his longtime companion since the 1860s. Claudel saw her dreams of marriage to Rodin collapse.

Steadfastly loyal, Rodin continued to approach collectors, journalists, and government officials to recommend Claudel’s work to them. Unfortunately, Rodin’s protection and artistic popularity cast a shadow over his student, who was constantly compared with him. Feeling humiliated and jealous, Claudel sought revenge and did everything she could to distance herself from Rodin and establish her own artistic identity.

The Age of Maturity is an allegory of Man abandoning Youth and letting himself be carried off by Death. One can read Claudel’s masterpiece as an eternal triangle in which the man is Rodin; the pleading young woman, Camille; and the aged woman, Rose Beuret. Both as an autobiographical work and a timeless allegory, The Age of Maturity is a painful account of the break between Claudel and Rodin.

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity, 1899. Bronze. Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: Musée Rodin / Christian Baraja

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In 1891, the Société de gens de lettres (Society of Lettered Gentlemen) commissioned Rodin to make a monument to renowned author Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). The sculptor launched into the project enthusiastically and did extensive research on the writer. After seven years of work, he was frustrated because of his contemporaries’ lack of understanding of his new artistic aims for this monument. Neither the organization that commissioned the work nor the public understood the spare sculpture Rodin presented at the Paris Salon in 1898.

“This work that has been laughed at,” Rodin asserted, “that people have made a point of scorning because they could not destroy it, is the result of my whole life, the very pivot of my aesthetic.”

Claudel, however, saw it as a “very great and very beautiful” statue. She thus joined with a forward-thinking audience, a small group of enlightened supporters, capable of recognizing the revolutionary character of Rodin’s Balzac.

Auguste Rodin, Balzac, 1898. Painted plaster. Musée Rodin, Paris. Photo: Musée Rodin / Adam Rzepka

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Camille Sublimated

After their relationship ended, Camille Claudel’s face continued to haunt Rodin. Starting in 1895, he returned to portraits he had made of her early in their relationship.

Reusing his portraits of Claudel from the early 1880s, Rodin added unexpected headdresses, drapery, and bases. He conceived some of his most intimate portraits as evolving from the large, unfinished marble or plaster block. Sometimes he incorporated hands from other figures. The resulting compositions were molded and, in some cases, produced in bronze and marble. Rodin experimented with subtle adjustments until the final result satisfied him fully.

Thus, Claudel’s deeply moving face was nostalgically revived and sublimated in an admirable series of symbolic portraits: The Farewell, The Convalescent, France, Thought, and Aurora. Except for France, these are personal works that the artist seldom exhibited during his lifetime.

Auguste Rodin, Thought, 1895. Marble. Rodin Museum, Philadelphia. Photo: Rodin Museum, Philadelphia / Graydon Wood

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