The Camille Claudel museum opened on May 26, 2017, in the small town of Nogent-sur-Seine in the Aube department of Champagne. It’s an exciting museum, with some 43 of her sculptures on display, alongside a large collection of works by another 44 artists who taught, influenced, and worked with her, particularly Auguste Rodin.
Camille Claudel was a superb artist, acknowledged as such by Rodin during her lifetime and recognized after her death. But despite this, she is popularly known for her passionate, and doomed, love affair with Rodin which has inspired books, a ballet, an opera and 3 major films.
Finally, this exciting museum brings her work properly into the public eye.
The story starts with Camille Claudel’s life through the sculptors who influenced her during her time living in Nogent-sur-Seine, from 1876 to 1879: Marius-Joseph Ramus (1805-1888) who lived in Nogent from 1845, Paul Dubois (1829-1905), and Alfred Boucher (1850-1934) who became Paul Dubois' pupil. Works of these three form the nucleus of a collection that became the Dubois-Boucher museum in 1902.
The second room illustrates the techniques used in the 19th century, particularly how a clay or wax model was transformed into the finished sculpture. The museum is easy to navigate and keeps your attention with explanatory films; here the film shows how bronze sculptures are cast.
The Golden Age of French Sculpture
The series of rooms that follow take you through what was a golden age when French sculptors produced monumental works for the great public monuments the Empire was building and opening. Take a second look at the plaster models of Dubois’ famous Joan of Arc bronze statue -- if you've been to Reims cathedral you'll have seen the statue in front of the west door.
Themes that so fascinated the 19th-century order this section: Allegory and Mythology; the noble Labourer; Manual vs Industrial; the Female Form. Don’t miss Three in One by Paul Richer (1849-1933) who was both sculptor and professor of anatomy at the Ecole des Beaux-arts. Three female nudes stand side by side: Antiquity, Renaissance, and the modern age.
Camille Claudel's Life
By now, you might be wondering where Camille Claudel is in all this but the absence of her work mirrors the life she led and the difficulties she faced. Born in December 1864 in Fère-en-Tardenois in the Aisne, she was the eldest of three children, educated at home. From a childhood spent modeling figures in clay, she went on to study at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, one of the few places open to female students.
In 1882 she rented a workshop with other female sculptors, including Jessie Lipscomb and studied with Alfred Boucher. When he left for Italy, Rodin agreed to take Camille Claudel on as a student and in 1884 she became his assistant.
She began to get private commissions, though she was still strongly influenced by Rodin: Crouching Woman (1884-85) was inspired by Rodin’s earlier work on the same subject. This section on Rodin's studio marks the start of the collaboration and passionate love affair between the older man and the young artist. Then you get a feel of her artistry in the flowing, lyrical piece, The Waltz which she made around 1893 in glazed stoneware as she begins to make her own way.
Three works on the same subject of lovers embracing show the different approaches. Rodin’s male figure is dominant; in Claudel’s work, there is a tenderness that is missing in that of Rodin.
The two lived together from 1886 to 1893 but it was not a relationship of equals, at least in work. She found it impossible to produce the kind of sexually charged works that she wanted to. She was dependent on the older artist in other ways; making sculpture was an expensive business, and Rodin supported her financially.
The Architecture of the Museum's Interior
The museum occupies two different areas, though the join is seamless. The first part is a soaring, beautifully light space housing the monumental works of the early years and concentrating on the major artists of the day. The Camille Claudel collection is in a former house which suits both the scale of her works – all are small – and the relatively small number of her exquisite sculptures that remain. If you have limited time, I recommend going to this part first to see her works.
Rodin refused to leave his wife, Rose Beuret, though he and Claudel spent the nights together and appeared everywhere in public. In 1893 Claudel issued an ultimatum, but Rodin refused to budge and the couple broke up. Claudel worked hard to establish a reputation for her work away from Rodin, who many of the public believed was still a huge influence. In 1896, she met the journalist Mathias Morhardt who wrote and published the first biography of her in Le Mercure de France in 1898. She also met Countess de Maigret, who became her major sponsor up to 1905.
Splitting finally from Rodin in 1898, she rented her own studio in Paris and in 1899, moved to the Ile Saint-Louis. She met the dealer and publisher Eugene Blot (1857-1938) who manufactured many of her works and in 1905 he held an exhibition of her work in his gallery. By now, increasing paranoia had turned into full-blown mental illness. In 1906 she stopped working and started destroying some of her sculptures, though there was enough work for two further exhibitions mounted by Blot, in 1907 and 1908.
In 1911 she was committed by her mother to an asylum on the grounds of delirious psychosis, and in 1914 she was transferred to Montdevergues in the Vaucluse and ceased making any more works. She received no visits from her mother or sister though her brother Paul visited her around a dozen times in the next 30 years. She died on 19 October 1943 aged 78 and was buried finally in a common grave in the cemetery of Montfavet.
Camille had a very considerable reputation as an artist in her lifetime and subsequently. Octave Mirabeau (1848-1917), the journalist and art critic described her as in the spirit of the time as ‘A revolt against nature: a woman genius’.
In 1951 her brother Paul Claudel organized an exhibition of her work at the Musée Rodin in Paris, followed by a larger exhibition in 1984 and in 2008 the Museum (which has some of her work on permanent display) organized a retrospective exhibition of most of the surviving works (which total 90).
There were exhibitions of the work of both Rodin and Claudel in Quebec City in Canada and Detroit, Michigan in 2005.
In 1988 the film of her life with Rodin called Camille Claudel starred Gérard Depardieu as Rodin and Isabelle Adjani as Camille. The film won various awards and Isabelle Adjani received the Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1989. A second film, Camille Claudel 1915, was produced in 2013 starring Juliet Binoche.
There have been various operas and plays about Camille Claudel, including the ballet Rodin by Boris Eifman which was premiered in St-Petersburg in Russia in 2011.
Inevitably many people know of Camille Claudel through Rodin, but there will be a lot about his muse and lover during the 2017 Centenary year of Rodin’s death. The French are using the year to show less well-known aspects of the artist’s work. The Rodin exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, March 22 to July 31 will emphasize Rodin as a pioneer. Jacques Doillon’s film Rodin with Vincent Lindon in the title role and Izia Hegelin a Camille Claudel is coming out in May 2017. 100 museums around the world are showing Rodin’s works.
Audio-Guide: The audio guide is included in the entrance price and has commentary in French, English or German, so pick this up at the entrance.
How to Get to Nogent-sur-Seine
Take the train from Paris Est to Nogent-sur-Seine on a train that goes through Troyes and ends in Langres. The journey takes 57 minutes and there are regular departures go regularly so it’s an easy journey in a day. From the train station at Nogent-sur-Seine, cross the bridge into the town and follow the signs to the Musée Camille Claudel (about 6 minutes).
Nogent is a pretty little town; don’t be put off by your arrival at the railway station with its neighboring industrial buildings! The town is associated with Gustave Flaubert who set part of his novel Sentimental Education here. There is a Flaubert trail through the town, past the old half-timbered buildings, and into the center
Eat at the Café de Bellevue which is just by the bridge over the river on the road from the station to the museum.