In 1882, having won the Paris Salon prize, Boucher had to abandon his position at the Academie Colarossi and his tuition of Claudel. He could not have expected that his choice of successor at the school - Auguste Rodin - would bring about one of the most fruitful but also tumultuous artistic and personal collaborations of the twentieth century. Rodin was immediately impressed with the work of Claudel, and by 1884 she was working in his studio, having become his model, inspiration, confidante and lover. Claudel contributed to a number of his sculptures, including his monumental work, La Porte de l'Enfer, to which she is reputed to have been mainly responsible for the moulding of multitudes of hands and feet, widely acknowledged to be the most demanding forms. During this period, she also conceived her exquisite Sakountala (conceived 1886-1905) in addition to an initial version of the present work, Femme Accroupie (conceived 1884-5).
Cast in an edition of just two bronzes for which the plaster model is now lost, the present work brings together both elements of Claudel’s relationship with Rodin: the significant part they played in the development of each other’s œuvre as well as the destructive force which the deterioration of their affair released within her. In the earlier model of the present subject, the figure’s head is sheltered by her arms which in turn rest upon her knees: the work was mentioned by Mathias Morhardt as early as 1897 and was retained by Claudel in at least one plaster version before the conception of the current work. While it is easy to explain the removal of the head and arms of the original figure as a result of Claudel’s increasing mental fragility during the 1900s, when she destroyed much of her own work, the impression left by the sculpture seems less a result of reckless damage than of a deliberate and refined reduction of the form which erodes nothing of its power. Claudel shared with her tutor an innate understanding of the expressive quality of a fragment of the body, a radical departure from the classical commitment to mimesis of complete and idealised human forms. Simultaneously, Torso de Femme Accroupie demonstrates Claudel’s ongoing fascination with the classical, and as Reine-Marie Paris and Arnaud de La Chapelle acknowledge, the mutilation of the figure ‘lends a sense of old ruins, and evokes Greek art’ (Reine-Marie Paris and Arnaud de La Chapelle, L’ œuvre de Camille Claudel, Paris, 1990, p. 101, translated from the French). The deft attention to the depiction of the muscles of the crouching figure, and the curvature of the vertebrae along her back, reveal the skill with which Claudel captured the human physique with an anatomical accuracy. Throughout her career, Claudel returned repeatedly to subjects from Greco-Roman mythology, even as her style of execution moved further away from the traditional methods still practised in the Salon.
It cannot be ignored that the subject matter of this present work evokes the pathos and vulnerability that has come to define Claudel’s life. Rocking back upon her heels, the female model of Claudel’s sculpture seems to be sheltering her from some unknown threat, the shoulders curling over while her neck tilts forward to shield the head. In contrast is her L’homme penché (conceived 1886) which depicts a male figure in a similar pose, his head resting peacefully on his knees, deep in thought. Claudel was deeply aware of the gender restrictions inherent in 19th century French society, particularly as an artist. Throughout her career, Claudel was ceaselessly compared to her tutor, and struggled to gain recognition in her own right. The prevailing male dominance of the artistic institutions who provided the crucial funding required to cast a maquette in bronze – and had demanded that she clothed her embracing couple in La Valse (first conceived in 1889) – alongside the moral prejudice against female artists, made the task of becoming a successful sculptor a real struggle. Although Rodin’s similar work, Crouching Woman (circa 1881-82), employs the same crouching pose, it does not convey nearly the same acute impression of a body closing in upon itself, away from harm. In light of the tumult of her personal affairs, and the mental illness which plagued the latter half of her life, the critique of the present work proposed by her brother, Paul, in 1969, is a poignant one: ‘I see this animal instinct which withdraws into itself to escape capture […] someone who is looking inside themself for a refuge against danger, not only from the past, but also from the present’ (ibid.).
The present work was cast by Frédéric Carvillani in 1913, a specialist in lost wax casting who had moved to Paris from Rome in 1907. Carvillani holds an important place in the repertoire of Claudel bronzes, for it was he who cast the monumental multi-figural group L'Age Mûr, possibly at the same time as this work, which is now in the Musée Rodin. Torso de Femme Accroupie was most probably cast on the instruction of Philippe Berthelot, a French diplomat and secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of whom Paul Claudel was an early protégé. It has remained in the collection of the Claudel family ever since.
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