Monday 26 March 2012

Paul César Helleu - part 1

I was recently reminded of the elegant portraits of Paul César Helleu’s by author and illustrator Ian Beck (Ian has a splendid, slightly esoteric blog that's worth taking a look at too – a link can be found in ‘Links’ in the sidebar). This is part 1 of a 3-part post on the life and works of Paul Helleu.

Paul César Helleu (1859 – 1927) was a French artist best known for his portraits of beautiful Society women. He was born in Vannes, Brittany in 1859. He started as a ceramist but at the age of seventeen, despite the disapproval of his widowed mother, he went to Paris to study with Gérôme and at the École des Beaux-Arts.

He became a close friend of John Singer Sargent, whom he met in Paris in 1878 when Helleu was 18 years old and Sargent 22. Already becoming known, Sargent was getting commissions for work. Helleu had not sold anything, was deeply discouraged and almost to the point of abandoning his studies. When Sargent heard this, he went to Helleu and picked one of his paintings, praising his technique. Flattered that Sargent would praise his work he offered to give it to him. Sargent replied, "I shall gladly accept, Helleu, but not as a gift. I sell my own pictures, and I know what they cost me by the time they are out of my hand. I should never enjoy this pastel if I hadn't paid you a fair and honest price for it." With this he paid him a thousand-franc note. This was perhaps the first thousand-franc note Helleu had ever seen.

Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife by John Singer Sargent 1889

Helleu was commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman named Alice Guerin in 1884. They fell in love, and married two years later (28 July 1886). She was undoubtedly his favourite model. Charming, refined and graceful, she helped introduce them to the aristocratic circles of Paris, where they were popular fixtures.

Portrait of Mlle Alice Guerin 1884

In 1904 he was awarded the Légion d’honneur and became one of the most celebrated artists of the Edwardian era in both Paris and London and an honorary member of the most important beaux-arts societies. He was a member of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Engravers and the Societaire de la Nationale des Beaux-Arts. He was decorated by the French Government with the Legion d’honneur in 1904. He was the creator of the astrological ceiling decoration in New York City's Grand Central Terminal completed in 1912.

The ceiling of the Grand Central Terminal in New York City

By the time of his last trip to New York City in 1920 he realised that the Belle Epoque was over. He felt out of touch and retired to his family life. He died in Paris of peritonitis in 1927.

c1879 Mademoiselle Ellen Helleu
pastel and chalk 32.6 x 30.6 cm

c1880 Young Woman in White

c1885-90 Portrait de Mademoiselle Granier 
pastel 95.9 x 64.8 cm

c1885 Mademoiselle Ellen Helleu 
conté crayon, wax crayon, chalk 35.2 x 19 cm

1894 Meditation 
drypoint 28 x 20 cm

c1895 Half-Length Portrait of Alice Helleu, the Artist's Wife
 chalk and pastel

c1895 Woman Looking at a Drawing 
chalk 63 x 45 cm

c1895 Woman Reading 
drypoint 59 x 44 cm

c1895 Woman Seated 
drypoint 53 x 32 cm

1896 Madame Helleu, Reading on the Beach

1897 James MacNeill Whistler 
drypoint 50 x 35 cm

Six years after the portrait of Whistler (above) Helleu appears to have executed another version of the same print:

1903 James MacNeill Whistler 

c1898-1900 Madame Helleu on her Yacht "L'étoile"
 oil on canvas

1899 On the Sofa 

c1899 Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Hat (Madame Letellier) 
drypoint 55 x 35.7 cm

1900 Portrait of Mme. Cheruit Wearing a Fur Collar 
drypoint 50.5 x 40 cm

1900 Young Woman in White 
oil on canvas

c1900 Consuelo Vanderbilt 
oil on canvas

c1900 Half-Length Portait of a Seated Woman, Smoking a Cigarette, Facing Left 
drypoint 53.9 x 40.9 cm

c1900 Woman Seated Leaning Forward, Chin Cupped in Left Hand 
drypoint 53.5 x 41.1 cm

1901 Le Grand Pavois


  1. Thanks for showing these things. His work really casts a spell. I always admire his work when I see it, and knew the Sargent painting, but somehow never connected him as the subject in the boat. His oil portraits would make me think his tendency was as a tonalist, but his outdoor work and sketches look like he is absolutely on the same side of the fence as the Impressionists.

  2. Thanks Doug, I think you're right, but for me it's his elegant drypoints that show his best side. By the way I like you work :-)

  3. wow, thanks for saying that. You have a great blog. It's inspiring.


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