Musée Camille Claudel
Nogent-sur-Seine, Aube, France

When it opened on March 26, 2017, the Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine became the first museum in France dedicated to a woman artist. The art, life, and to some degree fate of Camille Claudel (1864–1943) have always been inextricably linked to that of fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), and the inauguration of the museum in the “year of Rodin,” celebrating the centennial of the artist’s death, helped cement that connection. At the new museum, however, the focus is on Claudel and her works, as well as other French sculpture of the second half of the long nineteenth century. Some visitors will inevitably be drawn to Nogent-sur-Seine because of the melodrama surrounding the life of Claudel, who was the student, studio assistant, collaborator, muse, model, and mistress of Rodin, and who spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum before being buried in a mass grave. But attentive museum-goers should leave the Musée Camille Claudel with a greater understanding of Claudel’s art and its context, although even more could be done to contextualize her sculpture.

All photographs taken by the author at the Musée Camille Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.
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Fig. 1, Exterior view with new building by Adelfo Scaranello at right.

Architecturally, the Musée Camille Claudel is comprised of the building in which the Claudel family lived from 1876 to 1879, during which time the young Camille became passionate about modeling in clay, and a new building designed by Adelfo Scaranello (fig. 1). The latter makes extensive use of artisanal brick to harmonize with the surrounding buildings and to recall, in a metaphor for sculpture, the transformation of earth into other forms. Visitors enter via this new building, which seems perfectly sized to this town of 6300 inhabitants and blends with the Claudel home while still feeling contemporary. The Scaranello edifice presents an overview of French sculpture from 1880 to 1914, while the original building, of which only the outer walls remain, primarily houses the works of Claudel. For the most part, the 43 sculptures by Claudel come from the collection of Reine-Marie Paris, the grand-niece of the sculptor, which was accumulated over more than four decades before being purchased by Nogent-sur-Seine in 2008. Many of the other works come from the Musée Dubois-Boucher, a municipal museum that first opened in 1902 and that the Musée Camille Claudel has in part replaced.

The interior of the museum is generally austere, with neutral walls, pedestals, and floor tiles, but is warmed by touches of wood, seen in the benches in several of the galleries and a ceiling in one of the largest rooms. This minimalist approach helps keep the focus on the art on display, but there are several instances in which plaster and marble sculptures visually meld with, rather than stand out from, their surroundings. Numerous windows and skylights illuminate the galleries and offer glimpses of the town, but also create glare, especially on the vitrines and photographs in certain rooms.

In terms of furthering understanding of Claudel and her art, the very first sculpture encountered in the entrance hall of the museum unfortunately offers one of the few truly false notes in the inaugural installation. Sakountala is somewhat deceiving unless one listens to the explanation of it in the audioguide or as part of a guided tour (fig. 2). Both describe this as a “salvage” work, a bronze cast in 1987 from a damaged plaster, originally made in 1888, before it could degrade further. Incontrovertible evidence of the long neglect of Claudel’s sculpture, the unfinished quality of this Sakountala makes the work appear more similar to sculptures by Rodin than Claudel intended; in this case, the unfinished appearance is attributable to the ravages of time rather than to Claudel’s artistic decisions. While the museum’s curator, Cécile Bertran, views the piece as emblematic of Claudel’s career—and a poignant reminder that Claudel did not receive a commission that would have allowed the work to be cast in bronze during her lifetime—a falsely Rodinesque sculpture seems a misplaced introduction in a museum dedicated to an artist who spent so much of her career trying to assert her own creativity and independence from Rodin.[1]

Starting in the very first room after the entrance turnstile, Claudel is linked not to Rodin but to other sculptors with ties to Nogent-sur-Seine: Marius Ramus (1805–88), Paul Dubois (1829–1905), and Alfred Boucher (1850–1934). It was Boucher who recognized the talent of Claudel during her time in Nogent, provided feedback on her sculptures after the Claudel family moved to Paris, and invited Rodin to serve in that role when Boucher needed to be absent from the capital. One of the most touching works in the museum is Boucher’s Young Girl Reading (1879 or 1882)—seated, book in her lap, head tilted, and eyes closed as if trying to picture something she has just read—which is dedicated to Claudel and seems to evidence Boucher’s respect for her intellect and imagination. This patinated plaster is shown alongside busts of the four Nogentais sculptors (fig. 3). Rather than a portrait or self-portrait, however, the image of Claudel on display is a work titled France (1902–03, bronze) by Rodin. This inclusion of one of several allegorical works in which Rodin used Claudel’s features allows him to define her—and for her to be presented as a concept rather than an artist in her own right.

The next room focuses on the formation of sculptors in the nineteenth century and on various sculptural techniques of the period, especially those for the translation of works in clay, plaster, or wax into more durable bronzes and marbles. This introduction prepares visitors to process works in subsequent galleries, such as Boucher’s The Haymaker or In the Fields (before 1897) in Room 7, as this plaster bears the pockmarks left by a pointing machine. Room 3 then centers on public commissions, and this combined focus on techniques and commissions allows the museum to make the most of its large collection of plaster sculptures, works that would likely not make it out of storage in a major metropolitan museum. Yet the enormous size of Boucher’s Monument to the Doctor Louis Léopold Ollier (before 1904), which stands almost twelve feet tall and was the model for bronzes to this founder of modern orthopedic surgery in Lyons and Les Vans, and the incredible details of Dubois’s Equestrian Statue of Joan of Arc (1889), the model for the bronze in Reims, makes one almost forget that these are not the definitive works (fig. 4). The Stone Age or Man Fighting a Serpent (1893) by Gabriel Jules Thomas (1824–1905) is the plaster model for a bronze commissioned for the Zoology Gallery at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, and the nude male figure entwined with a large snake is in many ways an updating of the antique Laocoön with contemporary knowledge of prehistoric flint tools (fig. 5). As a whole, this gallery serves as a reminder of the strong support for public sculpture during Claudel’s lifetime, although she did not benefit from this “statuemania.”

Several other thematic rooms follow on the first floor. Room 4 focuses on neo-Florentine bronzes and especially the works of Dubois (fig. 6). Room 5 displays sculptures of female nudes and explores nineteenth-century canons of female beauty (fig. 7). The sixth room examines the continuing production of mythological subjects, while the seventh room highlights the growing interest in images of labor (figs. 8, 9). The subject of Room 8 is sculpture in the bourgeois private sphere, and the works displayed were produced on a domestic scale and in a variety of materials—from terracotta to marble, onyx, agate, and bronze—to appeal to different budgets (fig. 10). Room 9 has a small selection of historical subjects, including a small bronze version (1889) of Dubois’s equestrian Joan of Arc shown in Room 3 (fig. 11). In visiting these various galleries, I kept thinking about how wonderful a resource this museum would be for teaching courses about nineteenth-century sculpture, as every room would be fodder for a different lecture.

There are more galleries upstairs, starting with Room 10. The first part of this large room explores the theme of movement with images of dancers and athletes, including Boucher’s The Runners (1886, bronze) and The Pursuit or The Running (ca. 1900, plaster) by Paul Richer (1849–1933), who was a medical doctor as well as a sculptor (fig. 12). The second section focuses on Rodin’s studio, with a variety of period photographs, the painting Rodin’s Studio (1888) by Charles Weisser (1864–1940), and sculptures by some of Rodin’s assistants including Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929), Jules Desbois (1851–1935), and François Pompon (1855–1933)—but not Claudel (fig. 13). Also missing is any mention of Rodin’s other female students, such as Thérèse Caillaux (1859–1928), Jessie Lipscomb (1861–1952), and Malvina Hoffman (1885–1966), whose experiences as women sculptors would have provided an interesting counterpoint to those of Claudel.

The first developed introduction to Camille Claudel comes on the balcony overlooking Room 3 (fig. 14). As the museum is dedicated to Claudel, at least in terms of its name, this space seems somewhat liminal or secondary. Divided into two sections, the bridge that constitutes Room 11 successively shows the influence of Boucher and Rodin on the young Claudel. Bronze busts of Boucher’s parents, Sophie and Julien, from 1880 are juxtaposed with Claudel’s Old Helen or Old Woman (1885, terracotta), with all three speaking to an attempt to capture wrinkles and other effects of aging (fig. 15). The next section, “In the Studio of Rodin,” includes what have become standard comparisons of works by Claudel and Rodin that underscore their mutual interests and influences. These include two patinated plasters entitled Crouching Woman, one by Rodin (ca. 1881–82) and one by Claudel (ca. 1884–85), as well as a vitrine with Claudel’s Abandonment (ca. 1886, bronze) displayed between Rodin’s The Eternal Idol (1889, patinated plaster) and Eternal Springtime (1884, patinated plaster), with all three sculptures showing an interlaced couple (fig. 16).

After this introductory balcony, one enters the second story of the building that was the Claudels’ home in Nogent-sur-Seine, and it is fitting that Camille Claudel’s works are primarily displayed in this space. The first room, Room 12, focuses on Claudel as a portraitist (fig. 17). Many of her subjects were friends and relatives, and there are three depictions of Claudel’s brother Paul (1868–1955), who was a writer and diplomat: Young Roman or My Brother or Paul Claudel at Age 16 (ca. 1884, patinated plaster), Paul Claudel at Age 20 (1888, colored pencil on paper), and Paul Claudel at Age 37 (1905, bronze). Claudel’s striking bronze bust of Rodin (1888–89) is also exhibited here, although it would have made a fruitful comparison, either in this room or in Room 10 where it is currently on display, with Bourdelle’s Auguste Rodin at Work (1909, bronze). Arguably the most impressive work, in a vitrine in the center of the room, is The Little Lady of the Manor (1895–96, marble), which is on loan from La Piscine in Roubaix (fig. 18). The model for the work, who is said to have posed for 62 hours, was the granddaughter of the owner of L’Islette, a chateau near Azay-le-Rideau (Indre-et-Loire) where Claudel and Rodin stayed several times in the early 1890s. The texture of the young girl’s deeply carved hair contrasts with her highly polished skin, and her upward glance and somewhat glazed eyes are almost otherworldly.

After a small screening room looping a half-hour film about Claudel, the last room on the second floor focuses on The Waltz (1893), which depicts a nude man and a partially draped woman dancing (fig. 19). Four different versions are placed on a single large round plinth surrounded by a simple metal guardrail, a form echoed in the circular light above: a plaster patinated and retouched by the artist before 1896; a plaster signed, titled, patinated, and retouched by the artist before 1896; an Émile Muller enameled stoneware edition from before 1895; and a bronze cast by Eugène Blot (1857–1938) in 1905. The only other sculpture in the room is Fortune (1902–04), a female allegory derived from the female dancer in The Waltz that was also cast in bronze by Blot in 1905. The display of the four versions of The Waltz helps emphasize the movement of the work, with the dancing couple tilted at a seemingly impossible angle. These works would have been at home in Room 10 alongside the sculptures of dancers shown there, including those inspired by Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) and Loïe Fuller (1862–1928). Likewise, due to the scale and different materials of the four versions, they could have also been integrated into Room 8, which examined sculpture in the private sphere. In fact, Room 13 felt a bit spare and overly staged while serving to excise Claudel from the sculptural narratives of her time.

Upon descending the stairs to the first floor, one immediately encounters The Imploring Woman or Entreaty (1899), another 1905 bronze cast by Blot (fig. 20). While this placement is an unexpected surprise, the sculpture probably should be displayed in the adjoining Room 14, in which both a smaller version and a study for the work, both in bronze, are on view in a vitrine. A 1907 bronze edition by Blot of the related work Maturity (ca. 1890) is shown in the center of the room. A study for Maturity entitled Head of an Old Man (ca. 1890, bronze) and Torso of Clotho, Bald (ca. 1893, bronze), which is related to the now lost Clotho (1897, marble), are shown nearby and underscore Claudel’s interest in depicting sagging flesh (fig. 21). Maturity has consistently been interpreted autobiographically, first and foremost by Claudel’s brother Paul, as an image of Rodin being led away from Claudel by his companion, and later wife, Rose Beuret (1844–1917). In Nogent-sur-Seine, the juxtaposition with other related works by Claudel helps put the emphasis back on Maturity as a sculptural problem to be solved, one involving the interplay of three distinct figures, as well as the representation of both youth and age.

What is less clear is the relevance of four works by Rodin in a room entitled “Around Maturity”: Camille Claudel or Camille with Short Hair (ca. 1884, patinated plaster), Camille Claudel with a Bonnet (1884, plaster), France (1904, plaster), and Farewell (1892, plaster) (fig. 22). These sculptures, which are on long term loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris, seem in no way related to Maturity other than to re-emphasize the autobiographical reading of Claudel’s work by underscoring that there was a relationship between the two sculptors. To this visitor, it would have been more interesting to have these sculptures displayed in Room 12, where they could have been compared to portraits by Claudel, including her bronze bust of Rodin. Such an installation would have allowed for further exploration of issues surrounding portraiture, the role of models, and the utilization of recognizable figures as allegories.

The first part of the last gallery, Room 15, focuses on Claudel’s “sketches from nature.” These small-scale works were a distinct attempt to separate herself from Rodin and take her art in a new direction (fig. 23). At the same time, their size and, in certain cases, mixing of media align these works with those produced by other artists for domestic consumption, as seen in Room 8. In the case of Claudel, Blot, who was a gallery owner and art dealer as well as a bronze caster, played a large role in the editing and marketing of her sculpture in the early twentieth century. In Nogent-sur-Seine, there are two versions of The Gossips or Women Chatting (ca. 1893), two versions of Profound Thought (ca. 1898), and one of Dream by the Fire (ca. 1899). The absence of The Wave (1897, onyx and bronze) is unfortunate, and perhaps the Musée Rodin will loan that sculpture to Nogent-sur-Seine at some point in the future.

Claudel’s Perseus and the Gorgon (ca. 1897) is the only sculpture in the second half of Room 15 (fig. 24). This marble version was commissioned by the Countess Arthur de Maigret (1856–1910) for her home in Paris and was carved in 1902 by Pompon who was quite in demand as an assistant at this time. A discussion of Pompon’s role as a practicien, who worked on marbles for Rodin as well as Claudel, would have nicely complemented the material presented earlier in Room 2 on sculptural techniques. In addition, as Pompon went on to become a noted animalier, a connection might have been drawn between his sculptures of animals in Room 10—Yorkshire Pig (1923–30) and Spotted Panther: Head (1921–22)—and Claudel’s Dog Gnawing a Bone or Famished Dog (before 1898, bronze) in the nearby vitrine with the two versions of The Gossips (see fig. 23). Whereas Pompon would minimize details and produce increasingly sleek, polished forms, Claudel captures the dog’s pendulous teats and docked tail while the rough surface of the bronze bears witness to the way in which her fingers worked the original clay.

One of the few known photographs of Claudel in a studio setting (ca. 1898, Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, Paris) shows her standing beside the plaster version of Perseus and the Gorgon. While this photograph is included on the museum’s website in a section entitled “1893–1908: Period of Solitary Creation,” finding a way to incorporate it into Room 15 would allow visitors to envision Claudel as a working artist. Similarly, a reproduction of the 1887 photograph of Claudel sculpting Sakountala would make a welcome addition to either the display of the “salvage” version of this work in the entry hall or Room 11 on Claudel’s artistic beginnings. This image, which is in the collection of the Musée Rodin and is used on the Musée Camille Claudel website, depicts Claudel and fellow female sculptor Lipscomb in their studio on the rue des Petits-Champs in Paris. It thus underscores Claudel’s artistic relationships beyond Rodin as well as the fact that women needed to seek other ways to pursue their art as they were not admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts at this time.

In many ways, Perseus and the Gorgon is a fitting conclusion to a visit to the museum. The product of a private rather than a state commission, this marble was displayed outside rather than inside at the Salon of 1902, prompting Claudel to complain about its lack of visibility and exposure to the elements. This concomitant acceptance and marginalization of Claudel’s sculpture at the Salon was paradigmatic of the sculptor’s place in the art world of her time, while the marble’s prominent placement in Nogent-sur-Seine reflects the growing understanding and appreciation of Claudel’s oeuvre over the last several decades.

The very thoughtfully planned and presented installation at the new Musée Camille Claudel is accompanied by great “peripherals.” The museum’s website is attractive and easy to navigate, and includes information on the museum, its collection, Claudel’s life and career, upcoming activities, and Nogent-sur-Seine. A comprehensive press packet, which can be downloaded from the website, includes some of the same information as well as a complete list of the exhibited works. An audioguide, available in French, English, and German, offers the perfect amount of information. It was intelligent enough to keep the interest of this art historian, but did not seem so pedantic as to alienate those coming to the museum without prior knowledge of Claudel and nineteenth-century art. There is also an audioguide for children, available only in French and covering fewer works, that sounds delightful, as it allows for a visit to the museum in the company of Henri, an imaginary student at the École des Beaux-Arts in the 1890s, and his younger sister Amélie. Group tours, for which a whisper system is used so as not to bother other visitors, provide complementary information to that in the audioguide. Thematic tours are also available on certain dates, and lectures, art workshops, happy hours, and other programs are regularly available. In addition, videos are shown on monitors at several different points in the museum, and the one in Room 9, on the diffusion of sculpture through new reproductive technologies, was particularly interesting.

A guidebook to the collection by Françoise Magny, an honorary chief patrimony curator who headed the project to create the new museum, was released in French and English in August. Two other new publications—a special issue of Connaissance des arts about the museum and an issue of Dada, “the first art magazine for the whole family,” focused on Claudel—are available at the gift shop along with a variety of earlier books about Claudel and Rodin.

Nogent-sur-Seine clearly hopes the Musée Camille Claudel will be a tourist destination, and I found it to be a perfect Sunday outing by train from Paris. However, although the museum possesses the largest collection of Claudel’s works in the world, I could overhear occasional comments during my visit about there not being enough of a focus on Claudel. Yet, because Claudel destroyed some of her own works in the later part of her career while others have been lost in the intervening decades, a truly monographic museum is just not possible. Nevertheless, unlike at the Musée Rodin, which is the other major repository of her sculpture, Claudel is not relegated to a subsidiary role at the new museum, and the artwork by other artists on display helps contextualize her accomplishments. Integrating her sculptures with the rest of the collection rather than keeping them largely separate might be even more fruitful in showing how Claudel was both a product of her time and a unique creator. The inclusion of sculpture by other women artists, perhaps through loans or special exhibitions, would similarly help further understanding of the barriers that women sculptors faced during the long nineteenth century. Still, this visually attractive and intellectually stimulating museum does its namesake proud and, while not ignoring Claudel’s artistic and personal ties to Rodin, does not make them the primary focus.

Maria P. Gindhart
Georgia State University
mgindhart[at]gsu.edu



[1] Maev Kennedy, “Museum rescues sculptor Camille Claudel from decades of obscurity,” The Guardian, March 24, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/25/museum-rescues-sculptor-camille-claudel-from-decades-of-obscuritynew-win-icon.