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Sculpting the Legacy of Camille Claudel

Although French sculptress Camille Claudel is known by most art enthusiasts, her contributions to the art world are virtually unknown to the general public or at best, are largely eclipsed by her association with renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin. But it appears that recognition of Claudel’s body of work is about to spiral upward: a museum dedicated to her art is now under development and is scheduled to open in 2007.

The French town of Nogent-sur-Seine has purchased the house where Claudel lived as a teenager and plans to display in it the world’s largest collection of the artist’s works, approximately 100 in number. The museum is presently negotiating the purchase of seventy-five sculptures from Claudel’s niece, who began collecting her aunt’s work in the 1970s.

Camille Claudel was born in 1864 in Fère-en-Tardenois, a small town in northern France. She was the second child of three. Her father was a financier and her mother came from a family of Catholic farmers. As a child, Claudel is said to have been fascinated with stone and soil and as her artist talents were recognized, began taking classes at the Académie Colarossi, one of the few art academies in France open to women . In 1882, she rented a workshop with several other young women. In 1883, Claudel met the already successful Rodin, then 40, who instructed the group of women in the art of sculpture.

About a year later, at the age of 20, Claudel began working in Rodin’s workshop and eventually became his model and lover as well. Despite their romantic relationship, the sculptors never lived together since Rodin was reluctant to relinquish his 20-year relationship with his wife. The liaison between Claudel and Rodin was a great cause for scandal. Although Claudel’s father supported her artistic endeavors, her mother did not, and the rift between them caused Claudel to leave the family home. After an 8-year romantic liaison with Rodin, Claudel ended this portion of their relationship, although they continued to see each other regularly for the next seven years.

As Rodin’s assistant, Claudel had the opportunity to study the nude figure, enabling her to develop a proficiency in portraying the human form that, coupled with her expressive abilities, was unusual for a person of her age. Her work in stone and bronze focused on the delicate and emotional aspects of the human form and her fascination with it compelled her to create sculptures that were often viewed by critics as inappropriate for public display. By distancing herself from Roden, Claudel attempted to establish herself independently as an artist. Her work was exhibited at the Salon des Artistes and the Salon d’Automne and she achieved some success despite the controversy surrounding her work. In 1905, however, Claudel began to exhibit strange behavior. She destroyed much of her sculpture and disappeared for long periods of time without explanation. She also accused Rodin of stealing her ideas and conspiring to kill her. When her brother married in 1906, he returned to China and discontinued the financial support he had been providing. Claudel became a recluse in her workshop.

After Claudel’s brother married, her father supported her financially for several years until his death in 1913. About a week later, at the age of 49, Claudel was admitted to a psychiatric hospital against her will at the initiative of her mother with a doctor’s signature. During her commitment, which lasted until her death, the hospital staff regularly proposed Claudel’s release to her family but her mother refused each time. Claudel was forbidden by her mother to receive mail from anyone except her brother who visited every few years. She received few other visitors and was never visited by her mother or sister. During the 30 years that she spent in a psychiatric hospital, Claudel created no art.

Of course, nothing can undo the tragedy of this brilliant artist but since her death, recognition of her work has gained momentum. In 1951, her brother organized an exhibition of her work at the Musee Rodin. A large exhibition of her work took place in 1984 and in 1988, a motion picture was released about her life. Perhaps the opening of the new museum in France will illuminate further the extraordinary talent of this unfortunate artist and give her the credit she is due.

To see a gallery of the sculpture of Camille Claudel, please click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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