A Revolt Against Nature & The Night Witches

Camille Claudel

Born: December 8, 1864      Died: October 19, 1943

What she did: French sculptor


  • Camille Claudel was born in Fère-en-Tardenois, Aisne, in northern France, the second child of a family of farmers and gentry.
  • The family moved to Villeneuve-sur-Fère while Camille was still a baby. Her younger brother Paul Claudel was born there in 1868. Subsequently, they moved to Bar-le-Duc (1870), Nogent-sur-Seine (1876), and Wassy-sur-Blaise (1879), although they continued to spend summers in Villeneuve-sur-Fère, and the stark landscape of that region made a deep impression on the children.
  • Camille moved with her mother, brother, and younger sister to the Montparnasse area of Paris in 1881. Her father remained behind, working to support them.
  • Claudel was fascinated with stone and soil as a child, and as a young woman she studied at the Académie Colarossi, one of the few places open to female students. She studied with sculptor Alfred Boucher.
  • In 1882, Claudel rented a workshop with other young women. Alfred Boucher had become her mentor, and he also provided inspiration and encouragement to the next generation of sculptors. Claudel was depicted by Boucher in Camille Claudel lisant, and later she sculpted a bust of her mentor.
  • After teaching Claudel and the other sculptors for over three years, Boucher moved to Florence. Before he left he asked Auguste Rodin to take over the instruction of his pupils. Rodin and Claudel met, and their artistic association and tumultuous and passionate relationship soon began.
  • Rodin, was impressed by the first works that Camille Claudel showed him. The pathetic realism apparent in the bust of Old Helen and the more conventional handling of Paul at Thirteen moved him deeply.
  • The exact nature of the tasks with which she was entrusted remains uncertain, but she apparently spent most of her time on difficult pieces, such as the hands and feet of figures for monumental sculptures (notably The Gates of Hell).
  • For Claudel, this was an intensive period of training under Rodin’s supervision: she learned about his profiles method and the importance of expression. In tandem, she pursued her own investigations, accepted her first commissions and sought recognition as an independent artist at the Salon.
  • Between 1882 and 1889, Claudel regularly exhibited busts and portraits of people close to her at the Salon des Artistes Français. Largely thanks to Léon Gauchez, Rodin’s friend the Belgian art dealer and critic, several of her works were purchased by French museums in the 1890s.
  • Claudel’s works during this period attest to Rodin’s influence: the Torso of a Standing Woman (c.1888) and the Torso of a Crouching Woman (1884-85) show how she had grasped the expressive potential of a fragment of the human body.
  • She also exerted a certain influence over Rodin, who recognized her as an artist in her own right. Take, for example, the fact that her Young Girl with a Sheaf (1886-87) preceded Rodin’s Galatea, whose sensibility is so similar. Owing to their stylistic proximity during this period, it is sometimes easy to mistake Claudel’s skill for that of Rodin’s in works on which she collaborated as his assistant: whereas the head of the figure of Avarice in Avarice and Lust has been erroneously attributed to her, the heads of The Slave and Laughing Man (c.1885), which were signed by Rodin when they were cast in bronze, were actually modelled by Claudel.
  • Claudel started working in Rodin’s workshop around 1884, and became a source of inspiration for him. She acted as his model, his confidante, and his lover. She never lived with Rodin, who was reluctant to end his 20-year relationship with Rose Beuret.
  • Knowledge of the affair agitated her family, especially her mother, who already detested her for not being a boy and never agreed with Claudel’s involvement in the arts.
  • In 1892, after an abortion, Claudel ended the intimate aspect of her relationship with Rodin, although they saw each other regularly until 1898.
  • Le Cornec and Pollock state that after the sculptors’ physical relationship ended, because of gender-based censorship and the sexual element of Claudel’s work she could not get the funding to get many of her daring ideas realized.
  • Claudel thus had to either depend on Rodin to realize them, or to collaborate with him and let him get the credit as the lionized figure of French sculptures.
  • She also depended on him financially, especially since her loving and wealthy father’s death. This allowed her mother and brother, who were suspicious of her lifestyle, to keep the money and let her wander around the streets dressed in beggars’ clothes.
  • Claudel’s reputation survived not because of her once notorious association with Rodin, but because of her work. Her early work is similar to Rodin’s in spirit, but shows an imagination and lyricism quite her own, particularly in the famous Bronze Waltz.
  • Claudel’s onyx and bronze small-scale La Vague (The Wave) (1897) was a conscious break in style from her Rodin period. It has a decorative quality quite different from the “heroic” feeling of her earlier work.
  • After Rodin saw Claudel’s The Mature Age for the first time, in 1899, he reacted with shock and anger. He suddenly and completely stopped his support for Claudel.
  • The Mature Age (1900) is usually interpreted as an allegory of the three stages of life: the man who represents Maturity is drawn into the hands of the old woman who represents Old Age and Death, while the young woman who represents Youth tries to save him.
  • One of Claudel’s figures, The Implorer, was produced as an edition of its own, and has been interpreted not as purely autobiographical but as an even more powerful representation of change and purpose in the human condition. Modeled for in 1898 and cast in 1905, Claudel didn’t actually cast her own bronze for this work, but instead The Implorer was cast in Paris by Eugene Blot.
  • In 1902 Claudel completed a large sculpture of Perseus and the Gorgon. Beginning in 1903, she exhibited her works at the Salon des Artistes français or at the Salon d’Automne.
  • Ayral-Clause says that even though Rodin clearly signed some of her works, he was not treating her as different because of her gender; artists at this time generally signed their apprentices’ work.
  • Others also criticize Rodin for not giving her the acknowledgment or support she deserved. Walker argues that most historians believe Rodin did what he could to help her after their separation, and that her destruction of her own oeuvre was partly responsible for the longtime neglect the art world showed her. \
  • Other authors write that it is still unclear how much Rodin influenced Claudel – and vice versa, how much credit has been taken away from her, or how much he was responsible for her woes. Most modern authors agree that she was an outstanding genius who, starting with wealth, beauty, iron will and a brilliant future even before meeting Rodin, was never rewarded and died in loneliness, poverty, and obscurity.
  • Others like Eisen, Matthews and Flemming suggest it was not Rodin, but her brother Paul who was jealous of her genius, and that he conspired with her mother, who never forgave her for her supposed immorality, to later ruin her and keep her confined to a mental hospital. Kavaler-Adler notes that her younger sister Louise, who desired Camille’s inheritance and was also jealous of her, was delighted at sister’s downfall.
  • After 1905 Claudel appeared to be mentally ill. She destroyed many of her statues, disappeared for long periods of time, exhibited signs of paranoia and was diagnosed as having schizophrenia. She accused Rodin of stealing her ideas and of leading a conspiracy to kill her.
  • 1906 saw her living secluded in her workshop.
  • Her Father (who always approved of her art) died on 2 March 1913, Claudel was not informed of his death. Instead, eight days later, on 10 March 1913, at the initiative of her younger brother Paul, she was admitted to the psychiatric hospital of Ville-Évrard in Neuilly-sur-Marne.
    • The form read that she had been “voluntarily” committed, although her admission was signed only by a doctor and her brother.
    • There are records to show that, while she did have mental outbursts, she was clear-headed while working on her art.
    • Doctors tried to convince Paul and their mother that Camille did not need to be in the institution, but they still kept her there.
  • On 7 September 1914 Camille was transferred with a number of other women, to the Montdevergues Asylum, at Montfavet, six kilometres from Avignon.
    • Her certificate of admittance to Montdevergues was signed on 22 September 1914; it reported that she suffered “from a systematic persecution delirium mostly based upon false interpretations and imagination”.
  • For a while, the press accused her family of committing a sculptor of genius. Her mother forbade her to receive mail from anyone other than her brother.
  • The hospital staff regularly proposed to her family that Claudel be released, but her mother adamantly refused each time.
  • On 1 June 1920, physician Dr. Brunet sent a letter advising her mother to try to reintegrate her daughter into the family environment. Nothing came of this.
  • Paul Claudel visited his confined older sister seven times in 30 years. Their sister Louise visited her just one time, in 1929. Her mother, who died in June, 1929, never visited Camille.
  • Camille Claudel died on 19 October 1943, after having lived 30 years in the asylum at Montfavet. Her brother Paul had been informed of his sister’s terminal illness in September and, with some difficulty, had crossed Occupied France to see her, although he was not present at her death or funeral. Her sister did not make the journey to Montfavet.
  • Claudel was interred in the cemetery of Montfavet, and eventually her remains were buried in a communal grave at the asylum.

The Night Witches

Years: 1942-1945

What they did: 588th Night Bomber Regiment


  • When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, the Soviet Union realized they needed people and fast.
  • When World War II came to the Soviet Union, Marina used her status and connections with Joseph Stalin to convince the military to create 3 combat regiments for women.
  • To do this, she gave a speech on October 8th 1941 demanding that women be allowed to join the military as pilots, support staff, and engineers.
  • Later that day, Stalin created the all-female 122nd Aviation Corps.
  • The corps were made up of three regiments with 400 women each.
    • The 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment which was the first to take part in battle. They would destroy 30 enemy aircraft in 125 air battles.
    • The 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment which Marina commanded until her death in a service related plane crash in 1943. She was the first service member to receive a state funeral during the war.
    • Then 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, also known as the Night Witches. The 588th is arguably the most famous of the 3 regiments.
  • The 588th flew tiny plywood biplanes called Polikarpov U-2s that didn’t have radar, radio, and weren’t ever intended for combat.
  • To compensate for the lack of technology, the pilots were equipped with rulers, stopwatches, flashlights, pencils, maps, and compasses.  Little did anyone know, these young women clad in second-hand men’s uniforms would become the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force.
  • The pilots would leave in two waves. The first wave would serve as interference, attracting German spotlights which would distract them from the second wave.
  • The first wave had no ammunition with which to defend themselves and would release a flare to identify the intended target. The second wave of planes, each carrying 2 bombs each, would idle the engine and glide to the target. The planes were too small to show up on radar.
  • The Polikarpovs would be carrying 2 bombs each. While the planes were slow and shitty, they were fast and maneuverable in the hands of these daring pilots.
  • As they approached, they would idle their engines and glide the rest of the way. The lack of sound combined with the cover of night allowed them to sneak up on the enemy. The only warning the Nazis had was a light whooshing sound which they likened to the sound of broomsticks, thus the name, Night Witches.
  • After their mission was complete, the pilots would fly back to their base, reload, and head out again, often flying 8-18 missions per night.
  • The Night Witches were so deadly, that any Nazi who could shoot down one of their planes was automatically awarded the Iron Cross medal, which was a very prestigious award in Nazi Germany.
  • The Nazis actually thought the women were master criminals who were sent to the front lines as punishment or super soldiers who could see at night. Let’s remember, these are women in their teens and early twenties with minimal training.
  • While the planes were difficult to shoot down, that doesn’t mean it never happened. One ace Nazi pilot managed to shoot down 4 planes in one night, grounding the entire regiment for the first time.
  • Their planes were highly flammable and the pilots weren’t given parachutes until 1944, so being shot by even one tracer bullet could be devastating.
  • The Night Witches abided by 12 Commandments. The first was “be proud you are a woman.”
  • In their spare time they would do needlework, patchwork, decorate their planes, and use their navigation pencils as eyeliner.
  • The Night Witches last flight was on May 4th, 1945. They flew within 37 miles of Berlin.
    • 3 days later, Nazi Germany officially surrendered. 
  • By the end of the war, they had lost a total of 30 pilots.
  • Despite their ability to excel with limited supplies, outdated equipment, and limited training, 6 months after the end of the war, the Night Witches were disbanded and excluded from the victory-day parade in Moscow.

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