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A detail of a bronze sculpture showing two intertwined nude figures. The woman is bent over, her eyes closed, right hand covering her right breast, and her head resting on a man, who wraps his arms around her and presses his cheek to hers. A detail of a bronze sculpture showing two intertwined nude figures. The woman is bent over, her eyes closed, right hand covering her right breast, and her head resting on a man, who wraps his arms around her and presses his cheek to hers.

Camille Claudel through Five Works

Inside the Exhibition


In the late 19th century, as the world of fine art was very slowly opening to women artists, certain mediums were considered more appropriate for these newcomers.

Drawing was acceptable, as was painting. Sculpture on the other hand was most certainly not a polite art; it was intensely physical, largely reliant on nude models, and also bound up in male-dominated and politicized systems of state patronage—none of this was deemed to be suitable for women.

This, however, did not stop the young Camille Claudel (French, 1864–1943) from relentlessly pursuing the art form, producing daring works in plaster, marble, and bronze, primarily of the human figure. Her powerful work prompted critic Octave Mirbeau to exclaim, “We are in the presence of something unique, a revolt of nature: a woman genius.”

A black-and-white photo shows Claudel, her dark hair tied back and wearing a long, tailored smock, standing on a platform modeling a life-sized sculpture of a standing nude female figure whose head and torso bend dramatically to the left. Behind Claudel and the sculpture is a ladder, and on the ground, another woman, modeling a much-smaller sculpture that sits on a pedestal.

Camille Claudel and Jessie Lipscomb in their studio at 117 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, 1887

Via Wikimedia Commons

Despite such compliments, backhanded as they might have been, and Claudel’s inventive work in and of itself, the artist’s biography—especially her complicated relationship with her teacher, Auguste Rodin, and her confinement in a psychiatric institution for the last 30 years of her life—has received more attention than her daring artworks. This is particularly true in the United States, where public institutions hold fewer than 10 of her sculptures.

This fall, the Art Institute seeks to remedy this oversight with a major retrospective of Claudel’s work—the first in the United States in over 20 years. Featuring some 60 sculptures, the presentation showcases the sculptor’s technical virtuosity and innovative expression across materials and genre. 

Here we offer a brief introduction to Claudel’s life and work through five striking sculptures produced across her short yet productive career.

Young Roman (1882/83–87)

A sculptural bust of an adolescent boy covered all over in a mottled assemblage of orange, rusty red, and brown. The figure looks straight forward, expressionless, and wears a draped fabric across his chest and shoulders.

Young Roman, 1882/83–87

Camille Claudel. The Art Institute of Chicago, through prior bequest of Joseph Winterbotham and purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor, Anne Searle Bent, and Celia and David Hilliard

Claudel began sculpting as a teenager living with her family outside Paris. Encouraged by her first teacher, sculptor Alfred Boucher, the family moved to the city in 1881 so that she might study art. Claudel attended classes at the Académie Colarossi, one of the few art schools that allowed women to study nude models. Within a year or two, she entered the studio of Auguste Rodin, where she became his student, collaborator, and muse. 

Claudel produced many sculpted likenesses, especially early in her career. Because professional models were expensive to hire and women artists were generally discouraged from observing the nude form, Claudel portrayed her family members, including her brother, Paul, most frequently. This bust—capturing him around the age of 13—depicts the future writer and diplomat as a proud Roman patrician. The gravitas of his expression and the strictly frontal composition contrast with the thin drapery that swirls around his shoulders and ripples across his chest.

Claudel added the transparent layers of brown, green, red, and yellow paint to this plaster version of her portrait, likely seeking to imitate the oxidized surfaces of ancient Greek and Roman bronzes, which she could have observed at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Critics praised the composition for its sensitive interpretation of 15th-century Florentine sculpture by artists such as Donatello, which often similarly cut busts just below the armpit.

Young Girl with a Sheaf (1887)

A light-toned sculpture of a nude young woman. She sits on an ambiguous grooved support, looking slightly down to the right. Her right arm bends to touch her fingers to her right shoulder, and her knees point inward as her feet separate on the support. Behind her is an undefined modeled form.

Young Girl with a Sheaf, 1887

Camille Claudel. Musée Rodin, Paris. © Musée Rodin. Photo by Christian Baraja

Claudel was around 19 when she began working in Rodin’s studio in Paris. The earliest document on which both of their names appear is dated March 1883. Her involvement in his studio lasted about a decade, during which she took on the roles of assistant, collaborator, model, and romantic partner while also producing her own works and exhibiting them at the major art exhibitions in Paris, called salons.

This carefully modeled terracotta, dating from her time in Rodin’s studio, is essentially a nude study, but the addition of a harvested sheaf of wheat at the figure’s back may connote some narrative context—for instance, an allegory of autumn. The pose—head turned to the side, right arm raised delicately to her shoulder, and legs bent sharply in opposite directions—draws attention from multiple angles.

While it might be assumed that influence between a teacher and student always flows in one direction, Claudel and Rodin’s dynamic was more complex. The two artists continually exchanged ideas during her time with him. About a year after she modeled Young Girl with a Sheaf, Rodin produced a marble—Galatea—which borrowed significantly from her earlier composition.

The Waltz (with Veils) (cast 1893)

A bronze sculpture of two nude figures facing each other, together leaning in diagonal, the man resting his cheek against her upturned one. An energetic swirl of fabric cascades down the female figure's back and up and around both heads. Each extends one arm, her fingers pressing into his supporting hand.

The Waltz (with Veils), cast 1893

Camille Claudel. Private collection, courtesy of HomeArt

Claudel’s audaciously erotic depiction of two lovers surrendering to a dance was controversial from the start. A state-appointed art inspector, tasked with assessing sculptors’ compositions for possible government commissions, was scandalized by the “violent accentuation of reality” in the sculptor’s initial conception of the work, in which both figures were completely nude. Subsequent versions added complex draperies, which only enhanced the couple’s dynamic movement. Rather than a single moment in time, the work suggests an ongoing, diagonally ascending motion that threatens to launch the figures from the ground.

This unique bronze cast reflects the first exhibited plaster version (now lost) of The Waltz. By that early point in developing the composition, Claudel had already responded to criticism of her figures’ nudity. While the male figure remains undressed, his companion is partly covered, and light draperies whirl around them both. Praising this revised version of the composition, government art inspector Armand Dayot wrote, “The overtly realistic details have been sufficiently veiled… . The light scarf that clings to the woman’s sides, leaving her entire torso nude, an admirable torso, gracefully turned away as if to [escape] a kiss, ends in a sort of quivering train. It is like a torn sheath, from which there suddenly emerges a winged thing!”

Age of Maturity (modeled 1899, cast 1902)

A bronze sculpture comprising three nude figures. The central male walks forward, his head tilted down. Another figure reaches around his back, grabbing both the man's arms and speaking into his ear. A woman kneeling on the ground behind the man reaches up with both hands trying, but not succeeding, to clasp the man's trailing hand.

Age of Maturity, modeled 1899, cast 1902

Camille Claudel. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, RF 3606

Age of Maturity is a singular artistic achievement and perhaps Claudel’s most ambitious sculpture. She created it over the course of approximately nine years, from 1890 to 1899. At once universal and transparently autobiographical, it depicts the path of life, or human destiny as tragedy. Old Age takes the form of an elderly woman who, pressed against the back of a middle-aged man like a parasite, grasps his arms and steers him triumphantly beyond the reach of a kneeling, abandoned youth. Claudel carefully composed limbs, stances, and even the position of heads to create a clear narrative that advances in a dramatic upward sweep. The achingly small distance between the man’s outstretched hand and those of the imploring youth is nonetheless vast and devastating in its finality.

Many viewers at the time would have associated the man with Rodin and the elderly woman and kneeling girl with his long-term partner Rose Beuret and lover Claudel, respectively. Decades later, Paul Claudel identified the kneeling figure as “my sister! My sister Camille. Imploring, humiliated, kneeling, this superb woman, this proud woman, this is how she is represented. Imploring, humiliated, kneeling, and naked!”

A bronze sculpture of a kneeling nude female figure. She leans forward with both arms reaching up in diagonal, and her head tilts to the side, pleading. One knee is slightly ahead of the other as if walking on her knees.

The Implorer (large model), modeled about 1898–99, cast about 1905

Camille Claudel. Private collection. Image courtesy of Turner Carroll Gallery, Santa Fe

The composition was a success when Claudel first exhibited it in plaster: it prompted one critic to declare, “We can no longer call Mademoiselle Claudel a student of Rodin; she is a rival.” Claudel sought a commission in bronze from the French government, but—in spite of initially promising negotiations—the contract was abruptly canceled. It has been argued that Rodin intervened to prevent the state from supporting a work that seemed to expose his private life.

The Chatterboxes (1897)

A sculpture carved out of a light-green stone with veins of orange and white comprises four seated nude female figures facing each other in a circle, leaning in as if in deep conversation. Two partial walls meet in a corner behind them, framing the scene.

The Chatterboxes, 1897

Camille Claudel. Musée Rodin, Paris. © Musée Rodin. Photo by Christian Baraja

In 1893, having ended her personal and professional association with Rodin, Claudel isolated herself in her own studio, located in Paris’s working-class 13th arrondissement. Stung by the public’s continued comparison of her sculptures with Rodin’s, she was determined to forge a new style. She embarked on a series of compositions inspired by everyday life: scenes of women talking together, bathing in the ocean, and sitting alone before fireplaces. “You see,” she explained in a letter to her brother, “it is no longer anything like Rodin.”

The Chatterboxes depicts a group of four nude women seated on benches. Three of them lean forward to listen to the fourth. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, the figures convey rapt attention with extraordinary vitality. In the best-known green marble onyx version—carved by the artist herself—the women are sheltered by walls that turn their conversation into a whispered revelation. The work struck many critics as unprecedented, due to its lack of grand allegorical, historical, or mythological themes; the figures’ distinctly unclassical poses and physiognomies; and the miniature scale.

Detail of a sculpture carved out of a light-green stone with veins of orange and white showing the torsos of the four seated nude female figures. One sits more upright, her right hand cupped to her mouth as if whispering, the other bent to her chest. The other three fingers lean in close, looking up to her.

A detail of The Chatterboxes, 1897

Referring to works such as The Chatterboxes, the journalist Matthias Morhardt exclaimed in 1898: “By taking the ordinary parts of life and instilling them with art and plasticity, Mademoiselle Claudel has created a new art; she has struck gold. A gold that is hers alone.”

 In 1913, diagnosed with what was called paranoid psychosis, Claudel was forcibly interred by her family in a psychiatric hospital—first in Ville Évrard in Neilly-sur-Seine and later in Montdevergues in Manfort. She remained institutionalized until her death in 1943, despite doctors informing her family in 1920 that she could be released or at least moved to a hospital closer to them. Tragically, she refused to make any new sculpture. Hidden away with extremely limited access to visitors and correspondence, she and her work were gradually forgotten until her rediscovery in the 1980s.

Claudel’s rediscovery continues now in Chicago. The five works highlighted here are merely a small sample of the exceptional sculptures on view at the Art Institute through February 19, and I encourage you to experience them up close on your next visit.

—Emerson Bowyer, Searle Curator, Painting and Sculpture of Europe


Lead support for Camille Claudel is provided by an anonymous donor.

Major funding is provided by the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation, an anonymous donor, Amy and Paul Carbone, Marion A. Cameron-Gray, Nancy and Sanfred Koltun, Barbara and James MacGinnitie, Monika A. McLennan, Robin and Sandy Stuart, and Diane M. Tkach and James F. Freundt.

Members of the Luminary Trust provide annual leadership support for the museum’s operations, including exhibition development, conservation and collection care, and educational programming. The Luminary Trust includes an anonymous donor, Karen Gray-Krehbiel and John Krehbiel, Jr., Kenneth C. Griffin, the Harris Family Foundation in memory of Bette and Neison Harris, Josef and Margot Lakonishok, Ann and Samuel M. Mencoff, Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel, Cari and Michael J. Sacks, and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation.



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