One Fine Show: ‘Camille Claudel’ at the Art Institute of Chicago

This is the first comprehensive show of the sculptor's work in the U.S. in 35 years, and it's a must-see.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

A carving in green stone of four nude women conferring closely with one another on benches
Camille Claudel, ‘The Chatterboxes’, 1897, Musée Rodin, Paris. © Musée Rodin. Photo by Christian Baraja

When Auguste Rodin wanted to get to know someone, he would think hard about what they might look like nude. If you go to his house in Paris, which is now a museum that everyone loves, you’ll find all kinds of studies for his great works and they often involve the subject naked, even though there was no chance the sitter would be naked in the finished version. Honoré de Balzac? Naked. Jules Verne? Naked in the garden, striding. It seemed to be something Rodin liked to think about, in his oasis next door to Napoleon’s tomb.

It’s hard not to think about that house when considering the Art Institute of Chicago’s recently opened show celebrating the work of Camille Claudel (1864-1943), who was 24 years younger than Rodin and his model, student, collaborator and lover. At Rodin’s house, the relationship is probably best summarized by The Mature Age (1913), a sculpture of hers in which an older man abandons a pleading younger woman, beckoned away by a crone who symbolizes death and, perhaps, Rodin’s wife. I shouldn’t bring up that piece, though it is in the show, because the exhibition seeks to liberate her further from Rodin’s mythology, but it’s such a cool artifact from a breakup. (What do you have to show for yours? Emails?)

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This is the first comprehensive show of her work in this country in 35 years, showcasing 60 sculptures across a broad range of genres, formats and materials that constitute more than half of her entire body of work. The bigger name pieces are Young Roman (1882/83-87), a newly discovered portrait of Claudel’s teenage brother in painted plaster acquired by the Art Institute in 2022. There is a deep dignity to his face and the warm and curious patina makes him look like a refugee from Pompeii. Here too is Crouching Torso of a Woman, modeled about 1887 and in 2018 acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum, where this show will head next. The work is just that body part, but it radiates such power that you can tell she isn’t cowering. Her back is as powerful as Henri Matisse’s, in the garden at MoMA.

A woman on a stepstool works on a near life sized sculpture while another woman standing at floor level works on a smaller sculpture
Camille Claudel (left) with sculptor Jessie Lipscomb in their Paris studio in the mid-1880s. Photo: William Elborne

The beautiful melodrama of The Waltz (1889-1905) is probably Claudel at her most Rodinesque, but she excelled too in smaller sketches taken from life. The Chatterboxes (1896-98) shows a group of women gossiping in a corner. The largest version in this show is just 17 inches long so you can’t make out much of their faces, but the whole tiny scene speaks volumes with body language. It was a hit even in its time.

In 1895, the critic Octave Mirbeau described Claudel as “something unique, a revolt of nature: a woman genius.” She spent the last thirty years of her life in a psychiatric hospital. Only seven museums in the United States currently hold sculptures by Claudel. If you’re in Chicago, this is a necessary show.

Camille Claudel” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through February 19, 2024.

One Fine Show: ‘Camille Claudel’ at the Art Institute of Chicago