An unusual model and three sculptors

Her name was Caira and she was 82 years old. She had just been told she had cancer and she only had a few months to live. She wanted to see her son one last time, so she traveled to Paris from Italy. Her son was a model to Jules Desbois, who took interest in modelling her. The son persuaded the mother to pose for the sculptor. That’s all the information I found on Caira. She must have been a very courageous woman to pose nude at that advanced age.  More than a century ago! Maybe it was her love for her child that made her take her clothes off her weathered body. Whatever the reason, she inspired three wonderful sculptors:  Desbois, a friend and assistant to Auguste Rodin, Rodin himself, and Camille Claudel, Rodin’s assistant, model and lover.

Desbois was first to model her in terra cotta (Rodin started working with her around the same time).  His work is titled “Misery”.


How could Misery leave anyone unmoved? You almost feel inclined to throw away those rags, cover her in a blanket and tell her she’ll be alright. Desbois’ approach provokes a strong emotional response.

Rodin’s version, “The Helmetmaker’s Once Beautiful Wife” became part of his monument, The Gates of Hell.


Rodin’s focus is on the physical appearance of the model. The work bluntly shows her exposed and aware of the ravages of time. And time is more cruel to women than men. “There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say, that which offers no outer or inner truth” – said Rodin.  He finds the inner beauty in this old woman in her vulnerability and dignity even as she resigns herself to fate.belle_heaulmiere_big1

Most shocking of the three sculptures, and the most original is Camille Claudel’s version of the aged model. She envisions her as Clotho, one of the Fates, who spins the thread of destiny. Clotho is usually depicted as a girl, but Camille chooses to show her as an old woman entangled in her thread.

Claudel’s relationship with Rodin was falling apart around the time she was working on Clotho, which explains her preoccupation with destiny.

The old woman resurfaced later as death in her most important work, The Age of Maturity.clotho


Photo by Ch.Baraja

What a wonderful gesture from this old woman, Caira, to trigger such powerful response by not one, but three great sculptors!