The Musée Rodin in Paris occupies a Victorian-era mansion tucked away a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, complete with eighteen sun-bathed rooms of bronze and marble sculpture centered in maze-like fashion around the grand staircase. Each room enjoys natural light from the large bay windows that look out onto the French garden, perfectly manicured and used to display Rodin’s larger works, most notably The Thinker (1904). I can remember visiting the Musée Rodin in 2017 while on a school trip to Paris; I didn’t know much about Rodin except for the dates and titles I’d had to memorize in my art history class. The rest, regardless of whether my professor cared to include it, had gone by the wayside.


My classmates and I toured these eighteen rooms with a quiet sense of worship — we were young and discovering the pleasures of viewing art, taking part in some societal ritual that put us among those who “understood” while others did not, could not. We were touched by some works while disgusted by others. We took photos on our phones when we saw something we liked, wanting to capture the feeling of connecting with a physical piece of art, the fleeting access to some other dimension where our brains weren’t yet corrupted by social media and television references.

Taken by me, 2017

One room was different, dedicated to a female sculptor by the name of Camille Claudel. We passed through robotically, skimming the wall text next to each work before giving some perfunctory nods, perhaps an affirming grunt to show we’d learned something. She had been important enough in Rodin’s career to merit a room for herself, a few windows and a view of the garden, expanding luxuriously into the Paris background, dotted with bronze.

We nodded our way to the next room, letting Madame Claudel sink forgotten into our memories.

******

It wasn’t until college that I encountered her name again. My French professor recommended a film starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, Camille Claudel (1988). I looked it up, and realized there’s another one, released in 2015, again telling this story of this enigmatic woman, somehow connected to the master sculptor Auguste Rodin. Most likely, she was his mistress, his muse, the woman who inspired and subsequently destroyed it all through her seductive games. That’s how it always went in stories like these, didn’t it? Women are rarely allowed to play more substantial roles than this in the lives of male artists.


When I finally watched the 1988 film at the end of that semester, I was transported back to that small room at the Musée Rodin, a handful of sculptures existing only at the margins of a meandering exhibition: the life of a male artist, give or take a few addendums.

Camille Claudel was not only the lover of Rodin for a time, but she was also his apprentice, slowly growing to be as prolific a sculptor as he was. Their intimate relationship fluctuated over the years, and most often, Claudel had no choice but to rely on Rodin to gain funding for her works, or the money to make a living. She was dedicated to her craft, possessing a talent for carving marble that even Rodin could not seem to capture.

Sakuntala (1905), also known as Vertumnus and Pomona; exhibited in the Musée Rodin

Her work, hailed as that of a genius, was commissioned by the French government, including her most famous, L'Âge mûr (1895). The commission was ultimately cancelled in 1899; Claudel grew suspicious of Rodin, who she perceived to be jealous of her mounting success in the wake of their separation. In 1913, she was committed to a psychiatric hospital where she spent the next 30 years before her death. Most of her work has not survived, either lost or damaged by her own hand.

L'Âge mûr (1895)

******

The story of Camille Claudel is a familiar one.

American art historian Linda Nochlin writes about this phenomenon in her 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”. She outlines the institutional barriers in the art world that allow artists like Claudel to disappear in the shadows of their male counterparts. Nochlin argues that the reason there have been no “great women artists” has altogether nothing to do with artistic ability, but everything to do with gender discrimination. While men were allowed to excel in their genius, thrive in their artistic freedom, women were confined to the house, or to the asylum.

******

March 8th is International Women’s Day, and we’ll be celebrating women artists this week at the French Library during our screening of The Myth of the Black Woman followed by a Q&A with artist Nadege Tessono Okotie, as well as our lecture in French on the artistic women that gave the French riviera its reputation for stardom. 

This week, I’m thinking of Camille Claudel and the golden sunlit room at the Musée Rodin, my friends and I floating past.

Maxine Arnheiter

Administrative Assistant

Maxine discovered her affinity for French language and culture while living with a host family and studying French literature in Rennes, Brittany during her junior year of high school with School Year Abroad. During her time at SYA, her parents took beginner’s classes at the French Library—it was then that Maxine first learned of the library’s existence. Maxine continued with her French studies at Tufts University, majoring in English and French literature with a concentration in visual studies. Along with her time in Rennes, Maxine lived in Paris for a summer where she worked at a small art gallery in the Marais.

Six years after her high school experience in France and a year post college graduation, Maxine is thrilled to be the Administrative Assistant to the French Library, where she hopes to continue learning about and celebrating French culture and literature. In her free time, Maxine enjoys reading, seeing the newest art films at Kendall Square Cinema, and going for runs around the Esplanade.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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Join us at the French Library for a conversation about La Sorcière by Marie NDiaye. We invite you to read the book in its entirety and meet us on June 13th, from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM.

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