MacLeish had the administration’s respect. He paid them, well and discretely, for La Circassia’s safety, and, with the aura of responsibility he radiated, and his dignity – which was both reassuring and a little menacing – he only had to appear to remind them of those payments. This respect won MacLeish some cooperation, and he was able to learn about the old woman.
When the Germans invaded France in 1914, hospital administrators took her from an asylum in the suburbs of Paris, where she had been for less than a year, to the asylum in Avignon, where she would be safe from the invasion, or the bombardment. She remained there from then, in Montdevergues Asylum, fourteen years. We did not know it, but she would remain there that many years again; she would die there. Every year the doctors wrote her family to tell them she was no longer ill, that she was ready to go home and reintroduce herself into society, or at least to live quietly in the countryside where she would get used to the outside world again. And every time, her mother and her brother rejected the suggestion.
The old woman had been, before she was old, a celebrated sculptor. Because she was a woman, society thought this especially remarkable. She had attracted attention for her work, and for her beauty, and for a notorious love affair with her mentor, an older artist. This was an embarrassment for her family, this and her dramatic, bohemian habits, and her occasionally hysterical behavior around the work she made, which – when it did not satisfy her – she destroyed. Her family had committed her to state care in an asylum, and they made it a condition of her commitment she could not correspond with anyone but her family. Her brother, who managed the commitment, visited her on only four occasions: in 1913 in Paris, in 1920, and again in 1925 and 1927 in Avignon. A respected diplomat, a well-regarded poet and playwright, and a devout Catholic, he was clear: art, and her associations with other artists, was the source of her madness. As a condition of her treatment, or perhaps her imprisonment, she was expressly forbidden to work. For fourteen years she had been unable to draw or sculpt. It was decided for her: art was, in its essence, a mental illness.
Her name was Camille-Rosalie Claudel, but she was known as Camille Claudel.