5 Fast Facts: Camille Claudel

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Camille Claudel (1864–1943), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

1. Barring the Opportunity

The talented French sculptor received training at Paris’s progressive Académie Colarossi, in part because the preeminent Ecole des Beaux-Arts barred women from attending until 1897. Other NMWA artists, including Lilla Cabot Perry (1848–1933) and Ellen Day Hale (1855–1940), also attended Académie Colarossi.

2. A Museum of One’s Own

Claudel’s artwork is often regarded in the shadow of the sculpture of Auguste Rodin—the well-known artist with whom she had both a professional and romantic relationship. In 2017, nearly 75 years after her death, the Musée Camille Claudel opened in France, recognizing her important artistic contributions. This treasure trove features approximately half of Claudel’s extant works.

Camille Claudel's bronze sculpture depicting a naked young girl sitting on a rock with her right hand resting on her chest as she looks down toward the left.

Camille Claudel, Young Girl with a Sheaf, ca. 1890; Bronze, 14 1/8 x 7 x 7 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

3. Hand it to Her 

Claudel modeled the hands and feet of the figures in Rodin’s Burghers of Calais (1884–9). One of the twelve casts of this sculpture can be seen at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Check out the expressive extremities of the six men who sacrificed themselves to save their town.

4. It’s Complicated

Claudel isn’t the only artist to have a tumultuous affair with a male peer. Curious about complicated art-world relationships? Read about the blue ride of Gabriele Münter (1877–1962) with Wassily Kandinsky, the on-again off-again matrimonio of Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) and Diego Rivera, and the messy marriage of Lee Krasner (1908–1984) and Jackson Pollock.

5. The Price is Right

During a 2017 auction, 20 works by Claudel—including sculptures made of bronze, terra-cotta, plaster, and clay—sold for a record-shattering $4.1 million, more than three times the high estimate.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Camille Claudel: Art as Exclamation

NMWA’s mission underscores the necessity of space for women as creators and consumers of art. The poignant story of artist Camille Claudel (1864–1943), who struggled to cement her own identity and place, reinforces that significance.

Photograph of Camille Claudel, 1884, by César. Courtesy of Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, Mairie de Paris, Paris, France

Photograph of Camille Claudel, 1884, by César. Courtesy of Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, Mairie de Paris, Paris, France

Camille Claudel’s romantic relationships and tragic life have threatened to distract from the extraordinary works of art she created. Born on December 8, 1864, Claudel eventually moved to Paris, where she was able to study sculpture. Biographers such as Odile Ayral-Clause discuss her early interests in sculpting and art-making, desires that continued throughout her life.

After meeting Auguste Rodin, already a noted sculptor, in 1882, she entered into an apprenticeship in his workshop. She worked as a studio aide, later becoming his lover and muse. After close to a decade of their turbulent relationship, she felt that his influence in both her life and career were too obtrusive, and she sought a clean break. Discussions of her artworks have nonetheless been mired in speculation and psycho-biographical readings of her life alongside Rodin and her eventual mental illness and turmoil.

Two views of Camille Claudel’s Young Girl with a Sheaf, ca. 1890; Bronze; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photographs by Lee Stalsworth

Two views of Camille Claudel’s Young Girl with a Sheaf, ca. 1890; Bronze; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photographs by Lee Stalsworth

Regardless of their personal entanglements, her unique position in Rodin’s studio allowed her unprecedented access to anatomy and studies of the male nude, markers of artistic education not often allowed to women. Claudel’s Young Girl with a Sheaf, in NMWA’s collection, is a hallmark of her individual style. Gallery-goers can still see the lessons and references to Rodin’s innovations: the sculpture shifts as viewers walk around it. From different sides, the curves of the bronze reveal different angles and features. But the materiality of the sculpture and its forms are unmistakably Claudel’s. The curves of the wheat sheaf, upon which the female figure leans, are modeled to display the artist’s own hand as it worked. The rough-hewn treatment of the sheaf and the clumsily uneven texture of the skin reveal her work; it almost seems like the artist’s hands become visible, revealing her touch through the sculpture’s imperfection. The sculptor does not revel in the sensual nature of the figure, but rather focuses attention on the bronze itself.

Claudel’s later life was plagued by mental illness, a splintering family, and her frustration with a public that refused to see her as an individual and an artist. Through her sculptures, however, contemporary viewers can appreciate the incredible skill and talent that she demonstrated as a rare working female artist. Her works act as visual exclamations of the identity she forged as a woman and an artist.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.