How Rodin's tragic lover shaped the history of sculpture

Camille Claudel inspired one of the world's great artists. A new play aims to give her the respect she deserves.

As one of the first women on the arts scene of belle epoch Paris, Camille Claudel made quite an impression when she arrived at Auguste Rodin's studio at the age of 19 to work as his assistant. Rodin was quickly drawn to her – and her evident talent – and before long, she was his model, lover, inspiration and artistic equal. What followed was a story of art, passion and self-destruction over a tumultuous 10-year relationship that left Claudel mentally scarred.

The affair with Rodin both made her and destroyed her. Rodin, already in a committed relationship and 25 years her senior, was not prepared to leave his long-term partner, Rose Beuret, though he promised her that he would. The destructive aftermath of the affair consumed her to such a degree that she threw away much of her work and was admitted to an asylum, where she lived for 30 years.

Since her death, this fiercely independent figure in Rodin's life has led to much revisionism, and an Oscar-nominated film capturing her tragic life story and starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, was made in 1988. Now, the Brazilian-French actress and writer, Gaël Le Cornec is directing a play, Camille Claudel, which will be staged at the Edinburgh Festival (followed by an international tour), in the hope of bringing the lesser-known story of Claudel's life and art to British audiences. The drama will revolve around the letters that Claudel wrote and received at the two asylums she was confined in, in the last three decades of her life, and in it, Le Cornec argues against the assumption that Claudel was "insane".

"She was an incredible artist who changed the history of art. As a woman sculptor working in the 19th century, she was also one of the first women to work at Rodin's studio as an assistant," she says.

He introduced her to all the famous figures in Paris; she, for her part, helped change the course of his work. In sculptures such as The Waltz and The Wave, she sought to capture a fleeting moment in motion, or the ephemeral moment "just gone". Contrary to the assumption of the 19th-century's academy (who thought she was imitating Rodin's work) Claudel's presence in Rodin's studio cast an important influence over his work, rather than the other way around, Le Cornec says.

"You can tell the difference in his sculptures before and after Camille appeared in his life. Also, there are some works which we don't know if Rodin or Camille made; they are not signed but show signs of being made with four pairs of hands, by both of them."

By focusing on figurative sculpture – sometimes nude – Claudel attracted public outrage. Griselda Pollock, professor of social and critical histories of art at Leeds University, confirms that Claudel was "a major force in the experimental and transformative partnership that occurred artistically in Rodin's studio"; yet her work was subject to gendered censorship.

"For instance, to get a clay maquette made in bronze you needed the funding and the approval of the official Institut. When the inspectors visited Claudel's studio, they refused to give her permission to cast The Waltz because it showed two nude bodies in close proximity. The very idea was not acceptable from a woman's hand, whereas from Rodin's hand, work influenced by Claudel's daring, became acceptable as men are allowed to know about sexual desire and the body."

Gradually, Claudel began to feel persecuted. She even accused Rodin of plotting against her.

What made her public profile all the more contentious was her unmarried status. Rodin refused to leave Rose, but he did show his commitment to Claudel by signing a contract designed to prove that he was hers. "It said that he would leave Rose and have no other woman or model, but he never did leave. He was just scared to lose Camille," says Le Cornec.

Professor Pollock notes that Claudel was of menopausal age when she became more destabilised – and their relationship broke down.

"Alone as a woman of her class, not married to the man with whom she had a sexual relation, perhaps deeply distraught by the loss of love and undergoing major changes in her life cycle, while she watched her own sculptural ideas make Rodin the lionised figure of French sculptures, she may well have had some kind of psychological breakdown."

While her artistic career had its highlights, she never managed to earn enough money to be fully independent and, at times, Rodin paid the rent on her studio. Claudel came from a rich family and her father, having spotted her talent, supported her sculpting, but after he died, her diplomat brother and mother – more suspicious of her lifestyle – held the purse strings. It was after her father had died that she found herself on the streets of Paris, dressed in beggar's clothes. Now at her most vulnerable, her brother admitted her to a lunatic asylum. Le Cornec believes she languished here for decades for being a woman who was "ahead of her time".

Camille Claudel, Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh (0131 556 6550) to 27 August

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'