Did Auguste Rodin Steal From Camille Claudel?

CHICAGO — Camille Claudel, which traveled from the Art Institute of Chicago to the J. Paul Getty Museum, where it’s on view until July 21, is a significant exhibition. Not only because of the strength of the work on display, but also because it has the potential to change the course of art history.

Claudel was a brilliant artist, long eclipsed by her romantic partner and collaborator, the renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin, who the preeminent scholar Kenneth Clark once suggested was “the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo.” But was he?

The fact that Claudel’s work is every bit Rodin’s equal, if not its superior, becomes apparent throughout the exhibition. Seeing her “Torso of a Crouching Woman” (c. 1884–85) against Rodin’s sculpture of the same pose, for instance, is illustrative. Claudel’s modeling of the flesh is more tender and expressive. Her use of negative space is more compositionally integral than Rodin’s lewd gouge between his figure’s legs.

Claudel’s stronger formal skills, and deeper understanding of human nature, are equally borne out in her sculptures of multiple figures — as are her technical skills. Unlike Rodin’s “The Kiss” (1882), Claudel’s “The Abandonment” (cast 1905) does not need his use of a clunky sofa-like base to support the weight of her couple. Instead, every limb in “The Abandonment” captures the full-body embrace of two people succumbing to love’s charge.

Even when Claudel encases her figures in a swirl of form, as in “The Waltz” (cast about 1900), the result never feels tangential. The sculpture’s dazzling framework creates a protective moment of intense connection between the dancers. Claudel’s depiction of the lives of women also sets her work apart from Rodin’s. Only she could produce the remarkable encapsulation of the intimate world of women in her stunning marble, “The Chatterboxes” (1897).

What then went so wrong that Claudel’s work became so little known? Simply put, she entered Rodin’s studio.

From 1882 to 1892 she was Rodin’s assistant, lover, muse, and, most importantly, co-creator. However, aside from assertions in pop culture, such as Bruno Nuytten’s impressive 1988 film Camille Claudel, their collaboration has yet to be widely acknowledged by the art world.

Yet, while Claudel was with Rodin, he produced the bulk of the work for which he is best known, including “The Thinker” (conceived in 1881), “Eve” (modeled in 1881), and “The Kiss.” All these works were originally figurative elements in his monumental commission The Gates of Hell, then enlarged and cast or carved, which Rodin did not do.

Rodin’s talent was modeling in clay or plaster. The enlarging and casting of his works was done by assistants. And one imagines that when Claudel was with him, she would have been consulted on these, particularly on discussions of the patinas, as this was never Rodin’s strong suit. It was Claudel’s, as the patina on her “Young Roman” (1881–86) reveals. Rodin’s marble carving was also given to his best assistants, and, for a long time, this was likely Claudel.

Rodin’s other tour de force, “The Burghers of Calais” (modeled 1884–95), was also produced while Claudel was his assistant. The oversized hands and feet of the figures, which arguably lend the work much of its impact, have long been assumed to be by Claudel, as it is well known she often did this work for him.

Claudel’s “Head of a Child” (1904), or “Study of a Burgher of Calais,” also suggests that not only were the extremities of Rodin’s best sculptures modeled by her, but some of the burghers’ heads might also have been. Supporting that possibility is the small plaster “Head of a Laughing Boy,” shown alongside its bronze cast in the Camille Claudel exhibition. There’s one difference, though: In place of Claudel’s signature in plaster is Rodin’s name in bronze, proving that, at least in this case, Rodin took credit for her work.

The composition of “The Burghers” was likely also Claudel’s idea. Rodin’s skill with groups of figures was wanting. His most ambitious composite sculpture of figures, The Gates of Hell, is, politely said, problematic. Aside from “The Burghers,” little proof exists that he even possessed such talent, whereas Claudel’s mastery of figurative groups, as revealed in her work “The Age of Maturity” and “The Chatterboxes” was superb.

When one also considers the drapery in “The Burghers,” it also seems possible this is Claudel’s work. Her “Waltz” and “The Age of Maturity” show she could model more than flesh, and, again, few examples of clothed figures exist by Rodin. But compared with the customary costumes he created for works like “President Sarmiento” (modeled 1896–1898) or the summary cloak of his “Monument to Balzac” executed after Claudel left him, it seems hard to believe that Rodin was responsible for the robes in “The Burghers.”

These comparisons alone should sound an alarm of reckoning, but it will take more than my decades of looking at their work to make an ironclad case. It would take another show comparing the nearly non-existent examples of drapery Rodin sculpted in his lifetime against Claudel’s work with drapery. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Already we know that Claudel claimed Rodin stole from her when he was alive. As Frederic V. Grunfeld noted in his 1987 biography of Rodin, the 19th-century critic Mathias Morhardt, well-known to both artists, acknowledged Rodin’s debt to Claudel, explaining: “Rodin would deliberate with her on every decision that had to be taken, and not until she was in agreement would he venture to take a decisive step.” But Rodin easily silenced her and her supporters. He did so with an age-old practice that, sadly, is still played out to this day.

As Rodin was an older man insulated by people and a system that secured his career, Claudel’s public accusations were chalked up as those of a jealous lover. A woman crazed when Rodin wouldn’t leave his wife for her, which is true, up to a point. Claudel was furious Rodin wouldn’t leave his wife. But she also had become disenchanted with him, particularly after he insisted she get an abortion, which she didn’t want and which, ultimately, sealed her fate.

Claudel’s born-again brother, the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, never forgave her for the abortion. In 1913, only eight days after her beloved father died, he and the rest of her family committed her to an insane asylum.

If further proof is needed that Claudel’s claims were not without merit, the same accusations were made by the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso.

After Claudel left him, Rodin was again in hot water with another major commission. This time it was the monument to the French man of letters Honoré de Balzac. Floundering with the piece and years behind schedule, another solution-turned-thorn appeared in Rodin’s side. Like Claudel, Rosso was aware of the expressive power of materials, patinas, and surfaces which he exploited to the hilt. Rosso’s talents weren’t lost on Rodin, who had more difficulty silencing Rosso.

Rosso’s arguments that Rodin stole from him are convincing. The most damning is the leap from Rodin’s studies for Balzac to its final realization. Rodin’s early studies for the sculpture generally consist of a ridiculous mound of lumpen material squished between Balzac’s legs to hold up his massive body or the writer’s penis held erect in his hand, as a simplistic connection between male genius and generative sex.

Luckily for us, Rodin eventually hit upon a better solution. He tilted Balzac’s body backward, mounted it with a head with gouged-out eyes, and wrapped its corpulent mass in a cape — not unlike what Rosso did with his earlier “Bookmaker” (c. 1893–95), which he went out of his way to point out. Rosso fought for years to have the world recognize Rodin’s debt to him, going so far as to exhibit dated photos of Rodin’s work next to his own sculptures.

The fight continued. At a London exhibition of a society Rodin presided over, noted by Grunfeld in his biography of the artist, Rosso was given a prominent place. When the show opened, however, three of Rosso’s best works had mysteriously disappeared, as had their pedestals, ensuring he couldn’t replace them. And it wasn’t the first time: Earlier, Claudel’s commission for “The Age of Maturity” had been withdrawn without an explanation and, along with it, any future support from the Ministry of Culture — meaning, Rodin’s friends. 

Like many powerful men, Rodin equated success with the careful cultivation of powerful people and the exploitation of others — at which he was eminently successful. He shamelessly stole from and squashed his rivals, banking on the submissiveness of his well-placed, similarly-minded friends, too insecure to drop him when they should have. 

Rodin’s tactics remind us of why women like Anita Hill are silenced and people like Clarence Thomas remain on the Supreme Court. And why still others believe a convicted rapist should be allowed to rule the free world. The truth carries less sway than the fear of being ostracized for insisting on the obvious.

I believe that the truth about Rodin is that he stole from Claudel. We know for certain that he depended on her as his chief collaborator, as Morhardt noted of the two. And as Clarisse Fava-Piz writes in her essay in the catalog for Camille Claudel, the artist’s “involvement in Rodin’s creations was such that many of her works were subsequently misattributed to Rodin with such conviction that, in some cases, his signature was posthumously added to the bronze casts.”  

In the past, work done in a specific master’s studio was traditionally attributed to the studio’s master, but that is no reason for this to remain the case — especially with Claudel. After all, there has been considerable work on other artists, such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Leonardo, to determine if one of their works previously attributed to them is solely the work of the master, or the work of a studio hand or a restorer. Co-attributions are also not unheard of either. After a time, people accepted the artist duo originally known as “Christo” to be changed to “Christo and Jean-Claude.”

Unless the art world believes genius necessitates marketing the contribution of others as your own, Claudel, at least, deserves co-credit for many of Rodin’s best works. Let’s hope our community will set an example and rise to the occasion.

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