During the first weekend of the Camille Claudel exhibition in Paris this spring, those who had not pre-booked tickets faced a rainy two-hour wait in a queue snaking around the pavements outside the Musee Rodin. In France, this interest in Claudel's art demonstrates how far the sculptor has emerged from Rodin's shadow, a shift away from being viewed as emotionally volatile pupil, mistress and rejected lover towards taking her rightful place in the history of 19th-century art.
As with other 19th-century women artists, not least Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, this reassessment is due largely to the painstaking research of feminist art historians. By mining rich art and archival resources, they have revealed major artists of depth and substance working within complex socio-economic contexts and dominantly patriarchal institutional structures.
Far more elusive and fragmentary are the case histories of the partners/wives of artists whom Butler has selected for her thought-provoking study: Hortense Fiquet (Cezanne), Camille Doncieux (Monet) and Rose Beuret (Rodin). Although largely overlooked in the standard literature on Cezanne, Monet and Rodin, Butler argues that each woman contributed to her partner's success, not least as material presences in art.
An encounter with a vivid bust and painting of Rose prompted Butler's central concern in this study, an interrogation of Rodin's notion that artist and model "work together as a productive force". Such hidden histories are difficult to bring to light, not least that of Hortense Fiquet-Cezanne. Butler's reading of Cezanne's portraits, from a tender drawing of her face with the flower hortensia, to the powerful paintings of her seated in an armchair that entranced Rainer Maria Rilke and Gertrude Stein, reveal her as a potent force: less "the ball and chain", as she was often referred to by Cezanne's male acquaintances, than his muse and creative mainstay.
In the appearances of Camille Doncieux, "la volaille Monet", in Monet's art, Butler continues to stress the significance of fashion and materials in these evocations of la vie moderne, framing the true complexion of this couple's "productive force". The pressures of bourgeois familial and social mores become apparent in the warp and weft of these two partnerships.
Monet and Cezanne seemed unable to reconcile their social and financial aspirations with the realities of companionate marriage, their artistic ambitions disrupted by their difficult familial relationships, not least with their fathers. Rodin's father, however, supported his son's career, and life with Rose was hallmarked by its material simplicity; she was his garcon d'atelier, model, companion and housekeeper, as were many sculptors' wives. Nevertheless, whether at her behest or at Rodin's, she was largely excluded from joining him in "polite" society.
By knowing her subjects well enough to inhabit them imaginatively, Butler allows us to see these artists from a perspective of the domestic and personal, revealing a differently nuanced understanding of their ambitions and one that will be useful to both general and specialist readers.
As Marianne Kirlew wrote in the preface to her book Famous Sisters of Great Men (1905), "the lives ... I have chosen were so absorbed into those of their brothers (it is) only by a close perusal of the lives of those brothers has it been possible to extract anything like a complete account of their sisters", so too for Butler. The writing of biography has been likened to hunting shadows, and the book's title is equally indicative of the difficulties of her task both in terms of subject and method. (Sadly, the illustrations are too shadowy.) But the book's end-piece, highlighting Rose's and Rodin's long-term negligence towards their son, casts a longer shadow of a darker hue, a prime example of Philip Larkin's take on parenthood.
Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cezanne, Monet and Rodin
By Ruth Butler
Yale University Press, 320pp, £18.99
Published 31 July 2008