French sculptress Camille Claudel was born on December 8, 1864. She studied at the Académie Colarossi – at that time the more prestigious École des Beaux Arts was closed to women. She started working with Auguste Rodin when she was 20, and quickly became his muse and then lover. The relationship was fraught with difficulties. Rodin wouldn’t leave the woman with whom he’d had a long relationship and a child, and Claudel’s family strongly disapproved of her whole lifestyle. After an abortion in 1892, the romance was over. Her 1900 work, “The Mature Age,” has been interpreted as a manifestation of their break-up. This is an incredibly powerful work.
Claudel was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1905 after she became highly irrational, destroying many of her sculptures and accusing Rodin of stealing her ideas. Her family had her institutionalized in 1913, but many believed that they were burying her in a remote location for their own convenience. There are letters from her doctor asking her family to try to reintegrate her into normal life. They only visited her every few years. Claudel died on October 19, 1943 after 30 years in an institution. No one from her family attended the funeral or claimed her body; she was buried in a mass grave.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Camille Claudel. The best place to see her work is, ironically, the Musée Rodin in Paris. There was an Academy Award nominated movie based on her life in 1988, starring big-name stars Isabel Adjani and Gerard Depardieu and a number of carefully researched biographies have appeared.
Today’s expression, être bon pour Charenton (etruh bohn poor share-on-tohn) means “to be good for (the psychiatric hospital) Charenton.” It refers to someone who is mentally unwell. Camille Claudel was not at this particular institution, however. The bigger question is, was Claudel crazy or angry, sick or sad? Was a sane woman institutionalized for 30 years because her conservative family found her inconvenient and embarrassing? The line between genius and madness is often fine, but Claudel may have endured the unimaginable for half of her lifetime for no reason.