Today is March 1 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you ask others to do for you?” Best-selling author Terry Goodkind wrote in The Pillars of Creation “If you want to be a slave in life, then continue going around asking others to do for you. They will oblige, but you will find the price is your choices, your freedom, your life itself. They will do for you, and as a result you will be in bondage to them forever, having given your identity away for a paltry price. Then, and only then, you will be a nobody, a slave, because you yourself and nobody else made it so.” Today’s Navigate the Chaos post is about what not to do if you want to practice the art of living well. The story of French sculptor Camille Rosalie Claudel provides a cautionary tale of what happened when she asked others to do for her.
At 12 years of age Claudel began working with clay, regularly sculpting the human form. Aligned with the societal norms of the time, her mother viewed the profession of a sculptor as “unladylike” and preferred that her daughter stop sculpting and instead, focus on finding a husband. Her father, however, was more supportive and took examples of her artwork to their artist neighbor Alfred Boucher, to assess her abilities. Boucher confirmed that Claudel was a capable, talented artist and encouraged her family to support her study of sculpture.
Camille moved with her mother, brother, and younger sister to the Montparnasse area of Paris in 1881 where she would eventually enroll in the Académie Colarossi—an art academy that was extremely progressive for its time, not only accepting women to study there but also allowing them to work from nude male models. Boucher would visit the Académie each week to provide guidance to Camille and the other sculptors. When Boucher relocated to Italy in 1883, he arranged for another sculptor to continue these weekly tutorials. His replacement was Auguste Rodin, then 43 years old and considered perhaps the foremost sculptor of his day, though not yet celebrated as a master. Meeting Rodin, according to Arnesia Young in a January 8, 2021 article “marked a distinct shift that would completely alter the lives of both artists.”
Rodin was immediately impressed by Claudel’s work—though she was 24 years younger. The gritty realism apparent in her early works such as Old Helen struck him, and he soon invited her to work alongside him as an apprentice in his own studio. Claudel officially joined Rodin’s studio around 1883, by which time the seasoned sculptor had already received some of his first major commissions. As Young wrote “Claudel and Rodin’s relationship was far from professional. The two had mutual respect and admiration for one another and had become engaged in an impassioned love affair not long after they met. Even more than his apprentice, she became his confidant, model, and muse.” Her relationship and training with Rodin allowed Claudel to hone her skills, work on several of his well-known pieces, and exhibit her own work in the Salon des Artistes Français during this 1880s. The love affair and creative collaboration between Claudel and Rodin lasted over a decade. During his relationship with Claudel, however, Rodin remained involved with Rose Beuret, a seamstress he met in the mid-1860s and who was the mother of his son.
Over time two distinct developments occurred that would forever shape the rest of Claudel’s life: she began to realize that Rodin would never leave Beuret and she needed to emerge from his shadow as a sculptor in her own right. In the early 1890s she started to distance herself from Rodin and took her work in a new direction to explore more intimate scenes. One such piece of work, The Age of Maturity, sealed the break between the former lovers as Rodin was shocked by its portrayal of a young woman kneeling, reaching out towards an older man who is being pulled away from her into the rapacious embrace of a gnarled old woman. “Though it is now often interpreted as an allegory of the three stages of life, many at the time of its debut saw the sculpture as an artistic expression of Claudel’s break with Rodin.” Rodin retracted his public support for Claudel’s work and severed all ties with his former lover.
Claudel increasingly lost support because of the overtly sensual nature of several of her pieces, which was not deemed acceptable for a female artist. As her career rapidly declined and she fell into financial ruin, Claudel became increasingly paranoid and convinced that Rodin was plotting against her to ruin her and steal her ideas. Because of this, she became reclusive, destroying a large portion of her pieces to prevent Rodin from copying them and even refusing to sculpt anything new. By 1911, she had become a shut-in, her physical and mental health continually worsening. A few days after her father’s death, her remaining family members had her committed at the Ville-Evrard mental asylum. She was later transferred to Montdevergues asylum in 1914—due to the outbreak of WWI—and remained there the rest of her life. "I live in a world that is so curious, so strange," Claudel wrote in a letter to a friend in 1935. "Of the dream which was my life, this is the nightmare." She died eight years later, on October 19, 1943 in Montdevergues, France. After Claudel’s lonely death, her body was buried in an unmarked communal grave on the asylum grounds.
While Claudel may have died in obscurity, history has remembered her art, influence, and contribution to the 20th century. Before his own death in 1914, Rodin approved plans to add a Camille Claudel room to his museum. These plans were completed in 1952 when Claudel’s brother, Paul, donated several of his sister’s works to the Musée Rodin. “Furthermore, Claudel finally received the distinction and recognition for her own artistic merit that she so desired and deserved during her lifetime when the Musée Camille Claudel was opened in 2017. The museum is made up in part of the artist’s childhood home and features around 40 of her surviving works. Thanks to this, her incredible talent and contributions to modern sculpture are now being recognized and celebrated in a way that they never could have been during her lifetime.”
Claudel ‘embraced the past with a blind devotion’ and in so doing was unable to use her ‘intellect to make rational choices’ and watched her dream turn into a nightmare. She was a slave to her past, to her relationship with Rodin as a teacher, and to him as a lover. Claudel lost her freedom and when she tried to break free from the bondage to Rodin paid a heavy price of which she was unable to recover. In one respect you can easily use Claudel as an example of a pioneering woman who navigated the chaos of 19th century chauvinistic attitudes towards women sculptors. Afterall there is a museum named after her today; clearly, she achieved a high degree of success. But life is complicated and professional success is merely one part of a person’s life. Claudel asked Rodin to do for her and in the end was unable to figure out a way forward when she tried to become completely independent.
In this cautionary tale it would be easy to place all of the blame on Rodin. He should have been more compassionate, supportive, and kind towards Claudel as she sought her independence. But to focus on Rodin’s role and place blame squarely on him would miss the point of today’s reflection as Goodkind stated “If you want to be a slave in life, then continue going around asking others to do for you. They will oblige, but you will find the price is your choices, your freedom, your life itself.” As other Navigate the Chaos posts discuss, you can blame others but ultimately you only have yourself to blame. Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well is difficult work that takes tremendous self-awareness, discipline, and reflection. Having others do for you is perhaps not the best way to go about living well.
How often do you have others do for you? If you have, what has such a relationship done for your independence, ability to think for yourself, and your ability to move forward on your own?