Vannes 1859 - 1927 Paris
Élégante à la canne
Signed lower right: Helleu
Black, white and red clay pencils on brown paper:
36 x 19 ¼ in / 91.4 x 48.9 cm
Drawn circa 1902
Private collection, Europe
To be included in the catalogue raisonné of the work of Paul-César Helleu being prepared by l’Association des Amis de Paul-César Helleu, inventory no. DE-2481
Paul-César Helleu was one of the finest draughtsmen of his age, drawing with a sinuous line and caressing touch that epitomises the Belle Epoque. He was famed for his portraits of society beauties and graceful drawings of women inspired by his red-haired wife and muse Alice Guérin. Helleu was also strongly aware of his place in French artistic tradition: having studied with Gérôme, a pupil of Ingres, he described himself as ‘the grandson of Ingres’. Ingres was himself a superb portrait draughtsman. The trois crayons technique of this drawing, however, owes most to Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), another superlative observer of feminine mystique. Watteau’s work was avidly collected at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and influenced neo-rococo interiors, a style adopted by Helleu himself with the carefully chosen antiques in his Paris apartment. A print after Watteau can be seen in an 1890 photograph of Helleu.
Here Alice is dressed to go walking in a three-flounce suit and feathered hat, carrying a cane. Helleu was finely attuned to female fashion and frequently depicted Alice in pale colours, which showed off her creamy skin and rich auburn hair. In an interview given in 1902 to the Evening Telegraph, he commented: ‘My pictures are in great demand in France, by all the leading modistes as models for their gowns. Felix, Doucet and Worth all follow my suggestions. Beige, the colour of dead leaves, I use largely. It’s so artistic and becoming. It blends, you know, with the hair and. complexion. You will notice it is popular…There is nothing which gives a figure such long, graceful lines as the three flounce suit. This I have introduced with splendid effect’.
Vannes 1859 - 1927 Paris
Paul César Helleu was a painter and engraver whose work epitomises the charm and elegance of France in the Belle Epoque. His portraits of his wife, Alice, are considered to be amongst his most sensitive works. However, it was his commissioned portraits of society ladies that brought him fame and fortune.
Helleu was born in Vannes on the Breton coast in 1859. In 1870 he moved to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with Jean-Léon Gérôme; his circle of friends included John Singer Sargent (who bought one of his earliest works), Degas, Whistler, Alfred Stevens and Giovanni Boldini. Impoverished as a student, for a decade Helleu supplemented his finances by decorating plates for the potter Joseph-Théodore Deck. In 1876 Helleu and Sargent visited the Second Impressionist Exhibition, which was to have a profound effect on their artistic careers. Helleu was greatly impressed by this new group of artists and was accepted as one of them. In 1886 he was invited by Degas to exhibit in the eighth exhibition, but declined because of the advice of Monet and his dislike of Gauguin’s work.
Helleu’s reputation was established when he exhibited several large pastels at the Salons of 1885 and 1886, including Woman with a fan (Salon 1886; Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN). Jacques-Emile Blanche declared that never before had an unknown artist received such a rapturous reception. In 1885 Helleu visited London with Gérôme to paint a panorama (untraced). He became an Anglophile and thenceforth visited England almost every year.
The following year Helleu married Alice Guérin, with whom he had fallen in love two years previously, when she was only fourteen. The graceful, red-haired Alice became his chief muse and model. Helleu’s paintings and drypoints of Alice and their lovely children, executed with a sinuous lightness of line, are among his most celebrated works. Helleu became a master of the difficult drypoint medium, executing many portraits of society beauties. In 1887 Helleu met Comte Robert de Montesquiou, the inspiration for the decadent Baron de Charlus in Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Montesquiou became an important patron and Helleu also painted several portraits of de Montesquiou’s cousin, Mme de Greffulhe (Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes). Helleu himself features in Proust’s magnum opus as the painter Elstir.
Helleu’s financial success as a society portraitist allowed him to indulge a love of yachting which he had inherited from his father. He spent his summers at Deauville and Cowes, mixing with both French and English high society. Alice enjoyed entertaining on their boat L’Etoile and Helleu painted many canvases of life on board and harbour scenes.
Helleu visited America in 1902, 1912 and 1920, portraying famous American ladies such as Helena Rubenstein (drypoint) and the flamboyant Director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, Belle da Costa Greene (coloured chalk drawing; Pierpont Morgan Library, New York). In 1912 he painted the signs of the zodiac on the ceiling of Grand Central Station. Paul-César Helleu died in Paris on 23rd March 1927.
The work of Paul-César Helleu is represented in the Musée D’Orsay, Paris; the Louvre, Paris; the Hermitage, St Petersburg; Tate, London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
 Anonymous author, ‘Mr Helleu, artist, enthuses over American woman and originates fashion’, The Evening Telegraph, 20th December 1902.