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!

10 thoughts on “An unusual model and three sculptors

  1. 100swallows March 1, 2009 / 14:05

    I hope this post brings you a lot of hits because it’s a good one. Well-thought out, well-presented.
    All three of the figures are of high quality and worth looking at but I think Rodin’s woman is by far the best. It is the most abstract, the one most simplified, the most restrained. He truly was trying to show an inner beauty. The pose is livelier too. You can’t miss that sort-of melted wax surface which is so typical of him.
    The first figure makes too clearly an appeal to pity and the modelling doesn’t rise much above good studio copying. The last one loses itself in story-telling and materialistic detail, though I admit it is fascinating.
    You say time is crueller to women but in fact very old undressed men and women look almost alike. If both men and women wait until they retire from their service to nature to let reason blossom they will necessarily be pitiful.


  2. erikatakacs March 2, 2009 / 14:05

    Thanks, Swallows. I’m glad you like the images, it was hard to find good quality photos.In fact that was one of the reasons I didnt’ post this earlier. It’s an interesting story, I don’t remember hearing/reading of such fruitful collaboration between three sculpors. I like Desbois’ version too, he was more a man of his time I guess, while both Rodin’s and Claudel’s are more modern. I couldn’t find a plaster version of Rodin’s, in the book I’ve read looked far superior to this bronze. I can’t stop admiring the beautifully shaped head of the woman.


  3. kimiam March 3, 2009 / 14:05

    I love Camille Claudelle’s the best from these photos.

    Desbois’ is wonderful, but looks youthful, strong and masculine -not elderly. The pose is very nice.

    Rodin’s is excellent in its simplicity, expressing sadness, regret, defeat.

    Claudelle manages to express the strength this woman had, and even though she’s old…very old in Claudelle’s version, she’s beautiful overall. The face is incredible. Old, wrinkled, caving in, but you see that she was once young and beautiful. She’s still struggling, isn’t despondent.

    Nice post, Erika!


  4. erikatakacs March 3, 2009 / 14:05

    Yes, Kim, I think Claudel’s Clotho is one of the most unforgettable statues ever made. Fascinating-as Swallows said. And tragic. The woman must be her, trying to find her own way in vain. That fateful meeting with Rodin was both a blessing and a curse. Brancusi left Rodin’s studio after only three months, realizing “nothing grows under big trees”. She stayed. By staying she could never reach her true potential. By the time she left, it was already too late. Her mental problems surfaced, and she could not develop fully her modern, more individual style. It was heartbreaking to read for me that even though she repeatedly implored her family to release her from the mental institution they admitted her to, and let her return to sculpting, they never gave permission.


  5. kimiam March 4, 2009 / 14:05

    That was envy, erika. People who keep someone who’s profoundly gifted in a form of art from engaging in that art….it’s cruel envy.


  6. erikatakacs March 4, 2009 / 14:05

    Kim, sometimes that’s the case, yes. I’m not sure who do you mean in her case. Rodin recognized her exceptional talent right from the beginning, he turned to her for advice all the time, and certainly did everything he could to help her move her career ahead. But she had a tendency of behaving in an antisocial manner which worked against her of course.
    Her mother was always against her choosing an artistic career. But she was very close to her brother Paul, also an artist,a poet. Her mother put her in an asylum because she behaved erratically, did not take care of herself, lived in filth, disappeared for long period of times, and accused Rodin of conspiracy to kill her and stealing her ideas. She became a liability to her middle class family’s reputation. She was not mad though, her doctors wanted to release her later, but her mother never agreed to her release.


  7. kimiam March 4, 2009 / 14:05

    they never agreed to her release due to envy. That is what I mean. They wouldn’t allow her to have clay during her incarceration due to envy. Rodin probably did steal her ideas, if he was the one in the spotlight. She was the shadow.

    Who’s to say he didn’t conspire to kill her? Of course, when she was in the asylum, he could simply refer to that to completely discredit her.

    I’ve lived this. I know.


  8. cariocadorio May 14, 2011 / 14:05

    i just placed a link to this nice post in my blog. To ilustrate my post I used a photo I took, back in 85, in the arts museum in Washington, DC. I was very impressed by this sculpture then. I was looking for more info on it and reached your article. Your post helped bring this emotion back. My text is in Portuguese, though.
    Best regads from Rio de janeiro.


  9. erikatakacs May 17, 2011 / 14:05

    Hi Cariocadorio, that’s nice of you. Very nice photography I must say. Glad my post brought you back emotions. Cheers from Canada!


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