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May 11, 2009

The Suddenly Famous Crown Point Rodin

Rodin-champlain I was surprised this morning to find out that the media is hot on the trail of the "forgotten" Rodin bust at the Champlain Memorial Lighthouse in Crown Point, NY. The lighthouse and the sculpture are being restored in honor of the upcoming quadricentennial celebrations. Fox 44, WCAX and the Washington Post all ran versions of an Associate Press write-up on the Rodin piece. There's a story on the front page of the Burlington Free Press, too, though, inexplicably, the article isn't online. 

I wrote about the bust in April of 2006, in a story called "Lady on the Lake." Probably no one remembers it now, other than the fine people of Crown Point, who are probably still annoyed with my characterization of the region.

The French government gave us the Rodin sculpture in 1912, in honor of the 300th anniversary of Sam de Champlain's "discovery" of the new world, and as proof that our two countries are good buddies. This was a big deal back then. Rodin was very popular in the U.S.; President Taft came to Crown Point to see the lighthouse.

Since then, the work of art has been neglected. Here's my impression of the Crown Point visitors' center, from 2006:

The ramshackle tourist info center... houses hundreds of colorful brochures for attractions such as mini-golf and paintball, but the flimsy black-and-white tri-folded page that describes the Rodin is an outdated and poorly reproduced photocopy. A dark black finger smudge partly obscures the letters DEC - the acronym for New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.

On an afternoon in late March, there's just one brochure left. Tourist Information director Suzanne May opens a drawer in her office, pulls out the original, and slaps it on the copier to make more.

"I know," she says, "Pathetic. We can't get state funding to print any more. If I ever lose this, I'm in big trouble."

Apparently the impending quad has loosened some purse strings.

The picture of the sculpture is from my story. I think I actually clambered up on the rock wall of the lighthouse to snap the photo. It's not like there was anyone around to stop me. The park was more or less deserted, except for me and Frances Chevalier, the Norwich University professor who tipped me off about the artwork.

Incidentally, the face is said to be a likeness of Rodin's mistress, sculptor Camille Claudel. There's more about her tragic tale in my story.

It's worth a trip to the campground across the bridge to see the lighthouse, though it sounds like they're going to beef up security a bit now that people are aware that the sculpture is valuable, so you might not be able to get as close to it as I did. According to the AP, a rededication is scheduled for September 19.

The whole time I was in Philly, I never bothered to go to the Rodin museum there, but there is one. France gives us some nice stuff sometimes.

Haik, get over yourself

I am very disappointed by the way you represent the circumstances leading to the item you published in Seven Days in 2006 about La France located at the Champlain Memorial Lighthouse at Crown Point. I did much more than “tip” you off. Norwich University contacted you to inform you of my research of the bronze bas relief and the story behind it, research which I have been actively conducting in France and the US for years to prepare for the Champlain Quadricentennial. You asked me to meet you at the Memorial to discuss it. This July 4, I presented a paper at the Champlain Symposium (Champlain College), “The Many Faces of La France: Camille Claudel and France’s Gift at Crown Point,” which will be published this fall. It provides details about the bronze bas-relief, circumstances leading to its creation and its selection by the Société France-Amérique, and very importantly, how Camille Claudel’s face came to be that of La France. The AP article written this past May by Chris Carola, who, by the way, did not contact me, contains several errors. In addition, it is time that the media stop using reductionist terms, such as Rodin’s “muse and mistress” or “model and mistress,” etc., to refer to Camille Claudel. Claudel was an exceptional sculptor in her own right and Rodin’s collaborator on important works such as the Burghers of Calais and The Gates of Hell. Some of his greatest works may have been the result of the blending of their two artistic talents. I hope, at this time of the Quadricentennial, that the story behind the image will lead people to enjoy even more the gift that France made to the people of Vermont and New York at the time of the 300th anniversary celebrations--and, hopefully, lead others to pursue new explorations in this area of research.

Hi Dr. Chevalier. Sorry you felt slighted by my blog post. Anyone who clicked through to read the article I linked would see that you're the main source for the story. Clearly, I never would have known about it -- and couldn't have written about it -- without you.

I was utterly fascinated by Claudel's story, as told to me by vous. I, too, hope that the Quad inspires more interest in the sculpture and in Claudel's life and work.

Thanks for chiming in here.

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