Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 10, 2015

Women Artists in Fiction: Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb

Many who’ve seen the rough, fluid lines of Rodin’s stone or bronze figures are convinced of his passion. Many get the same impression from the sculpture of the lesser-known Camille Claudel, who often worked on a smaller scale. At eighteen, she became Rodin’s student and one of his helpers: carrying buckets of water, kneading clay, and sweeping plaster dust. Like many talented students, she taught her instructor, too, as Heather Webb shows in her moving novel, Rodin’s Lover.

rodin

As the title suggests, there’s a focus on the heat between them, but we also see friendships, Camille’s relationship with her parents and brother, and the joy she finds working with her hands. One scene shows her selecting the first stone she carved, chiseling the alabaster into “Slender fingers laced together as if uncertain whether or not they would poise for prayer.” The amount of time and thought behind sculptures that might look quickly done is well conveyed. We see not only artists in their studios but dealing with business: going after commissions, courting patrons, looking straight on at compromise, and coping with competition. Camille had the additional work of proving herself in a male-dominated field. It was hard enough for a woman to paint in the 1800s, but still fewer found ways to make careers as sculptors. Whether in stone or bronze, it’s messy, expensive, and takes up space, asking for something beyond a wall.

The novel is mostly told from her point of view, but sometimes switches to Rodin’s, who’s often showed as vulnerable, even shy, in contrast to Camille’s self possession. I loved her confidence, though it was tragic when illness made cracks through that, in what Heather Webb shows, with plenty of historical evidence, as schizophrenia. The diagnosis isn’t announced, as it wouldn’t come into Camille’s mind or ours as we stay in her point of view. The first voice she hears is a warning to stay away from Rodin, advice which she’s already heard from her friend Jessie Lipscomb and herself. Other voices develop from her (well founded) fear of betrayal and competitors, blossoming into paranoia. Some of her strong responses to people are like her mother’s, so she wonders if she’s simply and sadly becoming more like her. The onset of a terrible illness is not one downward sweep, but, like many illnesses, full of mystery as it comes and goes and is interspersed with days of love and work.

It was good to spend a few days of this too-white winter in Paris, working, though the novel does take us into a few dance halls and to tables with absinthe, talking about art.

 

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Responses

  1. I visited the Rodin museum in Paris and was blown away by the sculptures there. So different, to experience them as multi-dimensional figures, as opposed to flat photographs on a page.

    In a similar vein, it’s wonderful to see Camille Claudel herself come to life in ways that I could only begin to imagine, much less comprehend, while examining her (and Rodin’s) creative works.

    Smiling in your direction, too, this morning, Jeannine. When published, WOMAN IN BLUE (May Alcott’s story) will easily find its home on library shelves, among books such as this.

    • Yes, truly, to be in Paris and see the scale, to walk around, and light catching in all the grooves in the bronze. Wonderful to see a lot in one space, and it’s a story in itself how Camille’s work was included in the collection. This novel suggests a complex relationship, not so teacher/student, success/victim than I’d imagined, and I liked those blurred lines.

      And yes, I’ll be happy to see May Alcott showing how art is more than we find in art history classes! Thanks, Melodye!

  2. I love these books about the women behind artists and writers–and sometimes who do the actual work, like Clara in Clara and Mr. Tiffany. I saw a Tiffany show in Richmond that featured her lamps (most were designed by her and made by women in her workshop). Another new book to add to my list!

    • I also love those books, and swoon over Susan Vreeland’s work. How great to see that Tiffany show. Reading Rodin’s Lover made me want to go to Paris. Last year when I visited with my daughter, the Rodin museum was closed for renovations. My daughter said something like this is the kind of thing that keeps France from being a world leader — you don’t just shut down your major tourist attractions! (though they did keep a small sampling). Happily, I’d been there many years before — but now — longing for a trip, though the book took me there in a lovely way.


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