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Claudel, Paul

    Image Credit: Brittanica

    Full Name: Claudel, Paul

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 06 August 1868

    Date Died: 23 February 1955

    Place Born: Villeneuve-sur-Fère, Hauts-de-France, France

    Place Died: Paris, Île-de-France, France

    Home Country/ies: France

    Career(s): art critics, authors, essayists, playwrights, and poets


    French playwright, poet, essayist and art writer. Claudel was born in Villeneuve-sur-Fère in the north of France in 1868. His father, Louis Prosper Claudel, was a petit-bourgeois registrar. His mother, Louise-Athanaïse Cerveaux (Claudel) came from a local farming family in Champagne. Claudel’s sister Camille, four years his senior, would go on to achieve widespread acclaim as sculptor. Although the family was Roman Catholic, they were not particularly devout. Claudel was educated privately in Champagne before the family moved to Paris around 1882. There he attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and studied at the Ecole de Droit and the Ecole des Sciences Politiques. In 1886, two experiences shaped his aesthetic attitudes: he discovered the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and, on Christmas of the same year, a sudden conversion revived his Catholicism in a manner that would endure throughout his life. These experiences contributed to his religious interpretation of Symbolism as well as his insistently right-wing political views. The style that emerged from this combination of influences — characterised by unrhyming free verse — became known as ‘verset claudélien.’ Claudel began working for the French diplomatic corps in 1890 and, until his retirement in 1936, spent much of his working life abroad: primarily in the United States, China, Germany, Japan, and Belgium. Claudel’s career would influence his writing which was often set in temporally or spatially distant locations.

    In addition to his poetry and plays, Claudel also wrote occasionally about art. His collections of essays, Positions et Propositions (1928-1934), for example, included “Note sur l’art chrétien” in which the author identifies three main phases of Christian Art: Hieratic, Symbolic, and Idealist. The first phase is based on Byzantine art, the function of which was to illustrate the world inhabited by God. From the 6th century C.E. until the Renaissance, the purpose of art was to contribute symbolic, visual content that would enhance a congregation’s communion with God. In the final phase, which took place following the Renaissance, Christian art came to reflect the cleavage between religion and daily life. As Christianity’s authority began to wane the site of its influence shifted towards smaller, portable artworks which could be placed in a chapel or a home.

    In the early 1930s, inspired by Eugène Fromentin’s Les Maîtres d’Autfois (1876), Claudel visited Holland with the intention of discovering Dutch art. He described this experience in Introduction à la Peinture Hollandaise, a survey of the work of Dutch artists including Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and Frans Hals. Typical of the essay is its energetic ekphrasis of Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642) which combined an analysis of various conaspects notations of the image — it’s implied sounds, dynamism, themes of conquest, as well the figure’s individual psychology — with religious overtones.

    In spite of earlier anti-Semitic comments and, later, statements of support for Spain’s dictator Francesco Franco, Claudel was quick to condemn Nazism and was a vocal critic of the Vichy government’s anti-Jewish legislation. It was not until the mid-1940s that his plays — typically difficult and lengthy —  began to receive widespread recognition, decades after they were written. Jean-Louis Barrault (1910-1994), in particular, played a large part in this revival beginning with his production of Le Soulier de satin in 1943. Barrault’s enthusiasm was due to the fact that he interpreted many of Claudel’s works as exemplary of the Gesamtkunstwerk of “total theatre”. In 1946 Claudel was elected to the Académie Française. Barrault went on to produce many more of his plays including Partage de midi (1948), The Exchange (1951), Christopher Columbus (1953), Tête d’or (1959), and Sous le vent des îles Baléares (1972).

    Selected Bibliography

    • “Le Retable portugais,” in Plaisirs de France, 186, Décembre 1953;
    • L’Art poétique. Paris: Mercvre de France, 1907;
    • Positions et propositions, 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1928–34;
    • Introduction à la peinture hollandaise. Paris: Gallimard, 1935;
    • L’oeil Écoute. Paris: Gallimard, 1946.



    Contributors: Emily Crockett, Lee Sorensen, and Shane Morrissy


    Emily Crockett, Lee Sorensen, and Shane Morrissy. "Claudel, Paul." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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