Camille Claudel as modern di Butades

Beth Kearney
Université de Montréal et University of Melbourne


Beth Kearney est actuellement une étudiante en maîtrise au Département des littératures de langue française à l’Université de Montréal. Son mémoire de 2016, déposé à l’Université de Melbourne, porte sur la sculpteure et peintre contemporaine Niki de Saint Phalle. Elle travaille actuellement sur la figure du fantôme dans trois œuvres photolittéraires contemporaines.

Si Dibutade représente l’origine mythologique de la création artistique, elle symbolise également, même si on a moins prêté attention à ce détail significatif, l’invention par son père. En tant que fille du potier de Sicyone, elle est « de Butades ». De même, Camille Claudel – qui travailla étroitement avec Auguste Rodin, l’un des plus célèbres sculpteurs du XIXe siècle – est une artiste et collaboratrice dont le nom disparaît à côté de celui du maître-créateur, pour rester dans son ombre. L’étude de Claudel en Dibutade moderne se penche sur la femme artiste de la culture gréco-romaine afin de la réinterpréter à la lumière de la modernité. Dans un premier temps, il sera montré que la doxa du XIXe siècle hérite des idées associées à la figure de Dibutade, soit l’obsession, la sentimentalité, et son rôle essentiellement procréatif. L’exemple de Camille Claudel montre que la revendication du statut d’artiste, de la part d’une femme, est liée à l’idée du génie « contre nature » et, surtout, à l’hubris. Dans un deuxième temps, l’analyse d’une sculpture de 1906, Niobide blessée, permettra d’établir une analogie entre la figure mythique de Dibutade et Camille Claudel, prototype de la femme artiste peu reconnue pour son génie de son vivant.

Despite her status as the mythological origin of artistic creation, it is less widely acknowledged that Dibutade also symbolizes the birth of her father’s craft. As the daughter the potter Sicyon, she is “of Butades”. Commensurably, Camille Claudel – who worked alongside one of the most valorized sculptors of the XIXth century, Auguste Rodin – is an artist and collaborator whose name disappears beneath the shadow of the master craftsman. This article’s exploration of Claudel as a typically dibutadian figure retrieves notions of the female artist in Greco-Roman culture and reinterprets them in a modern context. This temporal comparison will unpack how the myth of Dibutade can be applied to the modern era: Claudel’s case demonstrates that while XIXth doxa inherits dibutadian concepts of obsession, sentimentality, and her inherently reproductive role, the modern underappreciated female artist is also figuratively tied to conceptions of “unnatural” genius and hubris. The author argues that the 1906 sculpture Niobide blessée foregrounds the analogous relationship between Camille Claudel the mythical figure of Dibutade.

De tous les rôles qu’elle aurait pu continuer de jouer — élève, modèle, amante, mère, artiste —, Camille n’en aura retenu qu’un : celui d’artiste1.

Pliny the Elder credits Dibutade as the mother of figurative drawing and visual portraiture. Yet she also symbolizes the origin of her father’s timeless legacy. Butades, a potter of Sicyon, draws inspiration from the preliminary contour – a portrait of a lover – traced by his daughter. To what extent then, can we consider Dibutade an active collaborator? This question is the essence of the dibutadian legacy, as she represents a collective doubt – from antiquity to modernity – in female creative potential. After the various waves of feminism, Dibutade’s symbolic heritage is observable in recent cultural revisionism and reappraisal of female artists2. The XIXth century sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) is one such artist who, since the 1980s, has received significant cultural attention for her exceptional œuvre, but also for the thirty years prior to her death that she spent in an asylum for the mentally unstable3. As the student, model, apprentice, lover, collaborator, and eventually the artistic rival of a highly revered avant-garde sculptor, Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel exemplifies society’s underestimation of female creative genius.

After outlining the circumstances of her creative formation in fin de siècle Paris and alongside Auguste Rodin, Claudel will then be my case study in explaining how the apparent timelessness of female obsession, sentimentality and the procreative role associated with women undermine the notion of a female genius in the western imaginary. These various points of convergence between Antique and fin de siècle imaginaries will lead me to an exploration of the term “genius” and of how Camille Claudel may diverge from Dibutade’s legacy. Through my examination of Claudel’s sculpture, Niobide blessée (1906), I will explain that despite being a collectively undermined as an artist, Claudel – a “hubristic genius” – was perhaps more able than Dibutade to transgress social, historical and institutional bias. While nonetheless inheriting from the mythological figure of Dibutade – a prototype of the underappreciated artist –, my analysis of Claudel as modern di Butades will demonstrate that she represents, unlike Dibutade, an attempt to flout modernity’s gendered confines.

Sculpture and women in fin de siècle Paris

As one of three artistically gifted children – her sister Louise was a musician and her brother Paul Claudel, with whom she was very close, would become a highly acclaimed writer and diplomat –, Camille Claudel’s family enabled her pursuit of the sculptural medium4. After working for a number of years with her first artistic mentor, Alfred Boucher, Camille Claudel moved with her family to Paris in 1881 and attended a private art school in Paris, the Académie Colarossi5.

In fin de siècle Paris, the historically “noble” medium of sculpture remained a male-dominated field6. Claudel was one of many ambitious young female artists whose success in the medium was barred by institutional and financial circumstances: few Fine Arts academies admitted women, and those enrolling in private art academies often paid more for their tuition fees than their male counterparts7. In addition, preconceived notions of the ability of a woman to work with hard materials such as stone, marble, clay and wood, prevented them from succeeding in the profession8. At the 1889 French Congress of the Rights of Women, for example, the sculptor Elisa Bloch described the sexist culture that frustrated her efforts to be recognized as an equal: “Qu’elles exposent au Salon, soit une figure, soit un groupe, Sculpture de femme, dira-t-on ! […] Élève de la nature pour les artistes est synonyme d’amateur9”.

The circumstances associated with becoming a female sculptor in fin de siècle Paris involved combatting collective norms and becoming active contributors in masculine spaces (such as the artist’s workshop). The sculptor’s studio of the period was, according to Siân Reynolds, a highly gendered space: “Au XIXe siècle, à peu près les seules femmes qu’on voyait dans les ateliers étaient les modèles, la plupart d’origine très modeste, des « grisettes » payées pour se déshabiller10”. The doxa of the artistic community revolved around the notion that painting and drawing – Dibutade’s mediums – were better suited to domestic (female) spaces11. Sculpture, on the other hand, required a professional artist’s studio and expensive tools and materials, including nude models12. A main challenge for the female sculptor in fin de siècle Paris therefore relates to her social potential to penetrate and participate in the professional and artistic milieu that would enable her to advance in the medium13. In order to overcome the institutional, financial and social obstacles associated with learning sculpture, women enrolled in workshops that hired reputed artists as “visiting professors14”. In a Parisian workshop on boulevard de Montparnasse, Auguste Rodin trained more than two hundred male and female students15. From these students he enlisted some as partners, who would work with him and train in his sculptural style16. A student of Rodin during the period, the Scottish Sculptor, Ottilie McLaren demonstrates the need for women to enroll in these schools as a result of the same cultural sexism that Bloch describes. In 1897, McLaren writes: “Ah, c’est si dur d’être une jeune fille ! Si j’étais un garçon, je pourrais entrer dans l’atelier de n’importe quel maître17”.

Claudel and Rodin

Claudel started working in Rodin’s studio from 1882, when she was eighteen years old18. More than twice Claudel’s age, Rodin had already met his lifelong companion, Rose Beuret, and was an accomplished artist and formidable professor19. According to epistolary correspondence, Claudel’s romantic involvement with Rodin had begun shortly after she joined his artistic entourage20. Claudel shared a studio with Rodin, learnt his techniques, and collaborated on his projects whilst developing her own personal œuvre21.

As collaborators and lovers until around 1892, their relationship is characterized as “passionate, artistically productive but personally destructive22”. As a result of her growing capability as an artist, and perhaps the competitive and corrosive nature of their liaison, Claudel began to professionally distance herself from Rodin. In 1888, Claudel sought creative independence from her professor, and Rodin rented a home and studio for her away from his own23. When Rodin refuses to leave Beuret for Claudel in 1892, the long and passionate affair between master and apprentice began to deteriorate24. Despite the separation, Rodin continued to financially and socially support Claudel25. While Rodin’s creative reputation grew and his work was exhibited throughout Europe, Claudel struggled to receive commissions for her projects, worsening her financial position and dependency on her family and sometimes on Rodin26.

Following the separation, she also began exhibiting signs of the mental illness that would torment her for the rest of her life. Aside from her increasingly reclusive and antisocial behaviour27, the changes Paul Claudel detected in his sister mostly relate to her pathological paranoia, ritualistic destruction of her own sculptures, and obsession to escape Rodin’s creative influence28. Camille Claudel believed that her former professor and lover sought to injure her career, plagiarize her work, and bring about her unending dependency on him29. Four years prior to her admission at a psychiatry hospital in 1913, Paul Claudel writes:

À Paris, Camille folle. Le papier des murs arraché

à longs lambeaux, un seul fauteuil cassé et déchiré,
horrible saleté. Elle énorme et la figure souillée,
parlant incessamment d’une voix monotone et métallique

Camille Claudel was transferred to a mental asylum in Montdevergues, where she lived for thirty years, from 1913 until her passing in 1943.

Obsession and sentimentality

From this tragic story, I identify an obvious initial point of convergence between Dibutade and Claudel: both artists exist in the collective imaginary as figures driven by obsession and love (capta amore). Dibutade traces the contour of her departing lover to memorialize their love. In this way, Dibutade is associated with sentimentality and an obsessive attempt to signal the lover’s absence and by doing so, reaffirm his presence. Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux explains that Pliny the Elder’s representation of the artist denies the artist authorship over her work: “Sa main n’a fait que calquer, copier avec application. Et de surcroît elle était guidée par l’amour, prisonnière d’amour : capta amore. Ce participe passif est un moyen de dénier à la jeune fille toute activité. Autant dire que l’inventeur premier était l’Amour31”. Later, the notion of capta amore began to incorporate another mythological figure: the concept of “driven by love” came to be associated with Cupid’s tutelage. In the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, “taught by love” was a recurring theme in paintings and engravings of Dibutade. Often used as the front cover of historical or literary books on painting – such as De arte graphica (1668) by Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy –, these visual representations depict Dibutade tracing her lover’s contour on a wall, either with Cupid literally guiding her hand, or with him sitting beside her verbally instructing her32.

Claudel inherits this legacy via her irrevocable association with her former sculpture professor. As Ottilie McLaren’s 1897 testimony indicates, students required training by the most prestigious names of the sculptural milieu. That is, Rodin’s name was an important part of the female sculptor’s formation. In addition, Claudel required a studio and expensive materials in order to develop her practice. This dependency demonstrates how, in Claudel’s time, she was realistically unable to professionally distance herself from the master craftsman. Contemporary feminist writing is unable to liberate her from this position of dependence and to extract Rodin from Claudel’s story because he was such a key player in her artistic formation: the first biographies of the artist in the 1980s exemplify the extent to which Claudel’s story is perpetually bound up in a dependency on the male genius, mostly because Rodin became a major psychological obsession later in her life33. Even after Claudel left his studio, she was endorsed (artistically, financially, professionally) by one of the most revered sculptors of the period. Epistolary correspondence testifies to Claudel’s obsessive – and failed – attempts to escape her master’s creative influence and to develop an original style34. A second point of convergence is therefore detectable between Dibutade and Claudel: both artists are unable to dissociate their success from that of their masculine counterparts. As a prototype of the underappreciated female artist, Dibutade’s real name is erased by her father’s historical contribution to art. Dibutade is “of Butades”: Pliny the Elder affords only a few words (filae opera, “thanks however to his daughter who”) to describe what was probably a collaborative effort that produced the first clay pot35. The mention filae opera is an ablative, prepositional form which introduces an accompanying detail to the historian’s main focus, thus exhibiting a certain reluctance to acknowledge the existence of collaboration or a female genius36.

Une révolte de la nature : la femme de génie ?

While Claudel succeeded in the “masculine” field of sculpture – and is today recognised for her brilliant body of work–37, at the end of the XIXth century her “genius” was publicly speculated. Marie-Victoire Nantet’s research of Claudel’s treatment by the Parisian press during the years of her romantic separation from Rodin reveals how difficult it seemed for a fin de siècle artistic milieu to conflate concepts of femininity and genius. Nantet explains that Claudel struggled to distinguish herself not only from Rodin, but also her brother who was gaining recognition in the 1890s as an important poet, playwright, and novelist (he would later be elected to the Académie Française)38. In 1893, Octave Mirbeau, a journalist and art critic (and close friend to Rodin) writes: “Instruite par un tel maître, vivant dans l’intellectuelle intimité d’un tel frère, il n’est point étonnant que Melle Claudel, qui est bien de sa famille, nous apporte des œuvres qui dépassent par l’invention et par la puissance d’exécution tout ce qu’on peut attendre d’une femme39”. Mirbeau’s reluctant compliment attributes Claudel’s success as a sculptor to the purportedly greater men in her life. These men, Mirbeau continues, no doubt contribute to her “very elevated, very male” (“très haut, très mâle”) style40. Mirbeau’s sexist rhetoric reappears in a published interview with a painter from the period:

[…] Kariste : « Sais-tu bien que nous voilà en présence de quelque chose d’unique, une révolte de la nature : la femme de génie ? » Ce à quoi Mirbeau répond : « De génie, oui, mon cher Kariste, mais ne le dis pas si haut. Il y a des gens que cela gêne et qui ne pardonneraient pas à Melle Claudel d’être qualifiée ainsi »41.

Despite Paul Claudel and Rodin’s great respect for her and her “genius”, Mirbeau’s writing corroborates my earlier assertion that in order to be a female sculptor in fin de siècle Paris, she was required to overcome the limitations of her gender. Female genius, then, is unnatural and possible only as a result of male tutelage and fraternal relation. Mainstream art criticism that openly undermines female genius (while hopefully not to an endemic extent) suggests that in the 1890s, “genius” was a masculine epithet. In matters of art, it appears that Claudel’s period inherited an antique tendency to compartmentalize male and female roles by associating intellectual and creative potential with physiological functions.

Thirdly, then, antique and modern imaginaries converge in their conception that the female creator can only be a procreator. That is, ancient Greek dogma regarding the reproductive process symbolically parallels, as Frontisi-Ducroux explains, Dibutade’s role in the creation of the first bas relief42. Dibutade’s preliminary sketch formed the frame with which Butades (veritable author) creates the bas relief43. In the reproductive process, the Ancient Greek philosophical standpoint is that the female is an apparatus which would produce life after having received the male gene44. Like a contour that constitutes the outline for a portrait, a child is born only as a result of the mother’s reception of the father’s image (DNA)45. As Mirbeau’s commentary indicates, the fin de siècle imaginary inherits an antique bias which conflates female creation with her procreative function. Despite the existence of “feminine arts46”, the notion of artistic creativity and inventiveness is reserved for men: men are society’s sculptors (women are their models and muses) and procreators (women are their penetrable apparatuses). An underlying posture embedded in the notional fabric of western society is therefore that creative genius is an inherently masculine qualification. And yet, did Claudel not combat this consensus by adopting the sculptural medium?

In artistic and philosophical history, experiences associated with emotional or intellectual isolation — and an ensuing sense of misunderstanding and social rejection — are long associated with the genius. The exemplary depiction of the melancholy genius is Albrecht Dürer’s oft-cited 1514 engraving — Melencolia I — of a medieval scholar47. Pierre Gravel eloquently restates the timelessness of the melancholy genius: “[…] la mélancolie comme humeur cardinale du philosophe, du poète, de l’artiste en général. Socrate et Platon auraient été aussi mélancoliques qu’Ajax et Héraklès48.” The famous exiled latin poet, Ovid, for example, was a literary figure who was cast out from his roman home, yet whose “genius” outlived him: in the famous epilogue to The Metamorphoses, he writes:

My work, my fame, will continue, ascending as high as the sky,
and among the stars the name of Ovid shall never die
but twinkle on forever—wherever the eagle has spread
its wings and as long as the Latin language is written and read.
If the words of poets have any truth or worth, they give this hope to me, who wrote them—that I shall become them,
And live49.

The melancholic genius’ unusual talent is thereby often underappreciated by his contemporaries – the reason, perhaps, for their social alienation –, but posthumously lauded. The figure of Dibutade is not exempt from this category, as her creative innovation is a corollary to her melancholic posture (regarding her departed lover). In other words, the myth of Dibutade – historicized by Pliny’s bias – is the myth of a (non-creative) melancholic and love-driven gesture which nonetheless outlives and evolves throughout history.

Hubristic genius

Claudel, however, is melancholic in different sense, as she exists today in the cultural imaginary as a figure whose mental instability was a requirement of her creative genius. If we consider genius a concept associated with melancholy, rather than inherent masculinity, we return then to another classical affiliation: in Greek Latin, “melancholy” shares an etymological origin with “insanity”50. In 1982, Gravel re-translates Aristotle’s writings on melancholy:

Pourquoi tous les hommes qui sont devenus exceptionnels (périttoi)1 en philosophie, en politique, en poésie et dans les arts se sont-ils avérés être mélancoliques (melankholikoi), et quelques-uns à un degré tel qu’ils furent atteints des maladies qui proviennent de la bile noire (mélainès kolès), comme, dans nos légendes héroïques, l’histoire d’Héraklès le rapporte ? Il me semble, en effet, que ce dernier eut été de cette nature (phuséôs), aussi les Anciens appelèrent-ils d’après lui du nom du mal sacré (ièron noson) les accès des épileptiques. Cela est manifeste si l’on considère son être-hors-de-lui (ekstasis)3 […]51.

If Aristotle associates the melancholy genius with illness (“la bile noire”) and excess (“être-hors-de-lui”, “êkstasis”), Claudel’s pathological paranoia positions her as one of history’s “insane geniuses” who retrospectively claims her title as a brilliant artist. Furthermore, the fact that Claudel’s genius was ever qualified “unnatural” (as in Mirbeau’s commentary) suggests that her ambition to overcome her gender role was transgressive, a characteristic symptom of her excess. Hubris, then, relates to the genius and their melancholy, folly, transgression, and excess — all components of Claudel’s experience. Nantet makes a similar argument:

Camille Claudel, Van Gogh, Cézanne et Gauguin que leur « génie » fit perçu et diffusé à travers des scénarios légendaires mettant en scène la nature de leur exception. […] Ils ont également en commun le malheur, entendu et comme l’expression hostile de la société à leur égard et comme le prix de leur ubris, à payer de leur sacrifice 52.

Claudel’s transgressive entrance into the masculine métier of sculpture, characteristic excess (tied to the psychopathological illness that she developed later in life), and her proud desire to rival Rodin’s prestige lends itself to an interpretation of her hubristic genius. Often drawing on antique mythology, Claudel’s œuvre alludes to the classical tragedian’s formula of hubris and nemesis.

Niobide blessée

Claudel’s 1906 work Niobide blessée, for example, is the sculpture of a young woman, with a soft and round figure, whose right breast is pierced by an arrow53. The Niobid’s right hand holds her wound and — notably — she rests her head on her left arm which hangs limply over the tree branch on which her mortal body collapses. Possibly inspired by antique notions relating to the force of nature (as in Ovidian literature), or perhaps Japanese culture which foregrounds man’s harmonious relationship with nature54, the tree on which she collapses appears to be reaching up to support the injured young woman55. The Niobid is a daughter of Niobe — a mother who is proud not only of her children but of her impressive line of descent — who inordinately offended the goddess Leto56. Most retellings of the story recount Niobe’s arrogant affirmation that while she had many children (depending on the source, she had between five and eighteen children), Leto had only two57. These children, Artemis and Apollo, punished Niobe’s hubris by murdering the Niobids (sources differ as to whether she was spared her youngest child58).

This sculpture of an unnamed, wounded child demonstrates how Claudel overstepped her gender role not only by being a sculptor, but by being a storyteller in her revision and reanimation of Antique mythology. Like Dibutade, the collective moniker the “Niobids” is an obvious derivative of “Niobe”, which highlights their undeveloped status and uncomplicated role in the myth. Moreover, the earliest version of this story, written by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, is entirely lost. Alain Moreau explains that piecing together the exact contents of the play, while resembling a “criminal investigation”, is nonetheless possible via its multiple retellings in literature and art (mostly IVth century Italiot vases): Aeschylus’s Niobe begins with the mother standing over the tomb of the Niobids after the massacre, rendering Niobe a prototype for the mourning mother59. The final stage of divine vengeance, Niobe’s nemesis, is that she be turned to stone, a petrified state that symbolizes infertility60. Therefore, the tragedy Niobe does not even tell the tale of the Niobids. The sculpture Niobide blessée gives life not only to a lost tragedy that evokes a mother’s hubris, but animates a minor and anonymous character in the tragedy: Claudel brings to life the forgotten story of a dying daughter outside of her collective status as a Niobid. Layers of history, visual art, and literature coincide to the extent that Niobe’s children — and their history of intermedial transmission — represent a collective and trans-historical process of destruction, forgetfulness and subsequent retrieval. Claudel is thereby an artist who, unlike Dibutade, contributes to history via her sculptural reinterpretation of antique mythologies. As opposed to Dibutade’s melancholia, Claudel’s hubristic genius and embrace of the sculptural medium positions her as a more active – or less disempowered – contributor to history than her predecessor.

In addition, Niobide blessée indirectly analogizes Claudel’s own hubristic genius: firstly, because the quality of her work truly rivals that of former professor and secondly, because she nonetheless crumbled under the symbolic confines of their mutual stylistic influence. In the early 1880s, Rodin sculpted Les Trois Ombres61, which would later become part of his monumental œuvre, La Porte de l’Enfer62. This sculpture is one of Rodin’s most iconic masterpieces (alongside his 1903 Le Penseur). From these figures, Rodin sculpted L’Ombre in 1902, which depicts a Dantesque hero (Adam) who wakes up in hell and is guided through purgatory by Vergil (the poet personifies the religious virtue of reason63). The head of the nude male — whose figure is more muscular and angular than Claudel’s — leans on his left arm which extends away from his body. Claudel’s Niobid, then, seems to adopt the same posture as Rodin’s Adam64. Claudel’s stylistic borrowing from Rodin foregrounds her hubris because of her refusal to honour the artistic integrity of her former professor. To return to Aristotle’s conception of hubris, we see that his definition implies a refusal to honour of a collectively respected figure:

La démesure et l’outrage impliquent de ne pas respecter « l’honneur » de quelqu’un, pour affirmer sa supériorité sur lui : les refus d’honneur ou les actes qui déshonorent sont tout à fait concrets, mais ils ont principalement un sens psychologique et social65.

Furthermore, it is clear that Rodin and Claudel’s artistic styles complimented and contrasted one another to a formidable extent66: the force, virility, and brutish strength of Adam’s contorted figure (crushed by the horrors of the inferno) contrasts starkly with the fragility, tragic defeat and pathos of the Niobid. Most of all, Claudel’s genius lies in the suspense her figures create via their corporeal posture67. While the left arm of Rodin’s figure has been thrust to the ground, Claudel’s Niobid is dying, but she is not yet dead: as the Niobid holds her left breast and slumps on the tree, her nearly lifeless body threatens to fall forwards. In temporal terms, Rodin sculpts a completed action, whereas Claudel succeeds in immortalizing the last moments of the Niobid’s life. Unlike Dibutade – who is firmly established in history as the daughter di Butades, an abandoned lover who is less a creator than she is a student “taught by love” – it seems that Claudel actively fought against her stylistic affiliation with Rodin.

And yet in her time, she suffered as a result of creative hubris as her compulsive attempts to no longer be a student “of Rodin” became a symptom of her psychopathology. Contemporary perspectives and epistolary correspondence suggest that Claudel struggled — in the real world but also within her own psychopathological space — to develop her own style that was entirely distinct from her former lover and master68. Antoinette le Normand-Romain argues that despite being a beautiful work of art, Niobide blessée represents Claudel’s inability to stylistically reinvent her work: the sculpture is not life-size nor marble, like the masterpiece Vertumne et Pomone69 that she completed in 190570. In addition to being a less monumental sculpture prior works, Niobide blessée signals Claudels descent into clinical insanity: Claudel blamed Rodin for fraudulently intervening in her business arrangements and for her inability to secure a commission for this work. As a result of her growing paranoia, in 1907 she writes to the secretary of the Fine Arts Department: “Voilà l’infâme exploitation à laquelle est obligé de se livrer ce grand génie [Rodin] pour conquérir les idées qui lui manquent71”.


On the whole, Claudel’s ingenious contribution to modern art history testifies unequivocally to the ability of the female artist to rival the skill of her professor. While Claudel’s story is tragic, it appears that she was nonetheless more able to contest modern doxa than Dibutade. Through my exploration of Camille Claudel’s experience as an artist, I have married Antique perspectives with more recent fin de siècle representations of female creative potential. In both temporalities, collective standards seem to transform the creativity and originality of the female artist into the result of obsessive tendencies and of her relationship with a master creator: the driving force b the invention of the work of art is no longer genius or inventiveness (the realm of men), but love (the emotional domain of women). Instead of being a creator, the female is prescribed a procreative role, a notion which eliminates the traces of “creation” to the extent that she is considered only an empty apparatus. And yet, Claudel contested the notion of an exclusively masculine creative genius. Practicing a purportedly “male” medium, Claudel departs from the dibutadian legacy because her identity becomes bound up in notions – commonly associated with the genius – of excess, hubris, and mental illness. While Dibutade is eternally di Butades, in the XIXth century, the female genius is not such because of her reclusiveness and melancholy, but her ambition, pride, and malady. Claudel’s portrait of the conquered Niobid, living her last moments in the cradle of nature, not only brings to life a forgotten tragedy and unnamed loss, but is emblematic of Claudel’s struggle to emerge from the shadow of her former master.

Figures such as Dibutade, Claudel, Niobe, and the Niobids collectively represent how “female” remains tied, even in modernity, to emotions and to pro-creation, rather than power, creativity, and originality. This bias, inherited from Antiquity, was a central – and increasingly pathological – concern for Claudel. In 1898, she writes: “[…] il faut d’énergie pour échapper à une influence première et néfaste ! Ah oui ! vous avez raison de le dire que cet homme m’en a fait du mal ! … et il m’en fera encore72”. Claudel was – as we see in Mirbeau’s commentary – more able to contest modern doxa and shift preconceived notions via her incarnation of the unwell, hubristic genius. Dibutade, on the other hand, is immortalized by Pliny’s Natural History and its subsequent reinterpretations as a historical analogy, frozen in her “feminine” role. If the anonymous name of Dibutade could be metonymically employed to describe an artist who struggles to emerge from the symbolic confines of her gender, then Claudel represents an artist as marginalised, misunderstood, and ingenious as Ovid, the exiled poet.

Pour citer cette page

Beth Kearney, « Camille Claudel as modern di Butades »,  MuseMedusa, no 6, 2018, <> (Page consultée le 07 December 2022).