Paul Cesar Helleu was a painter and engraver whose work epitomises the charm and elegance of France at the turn of the century. His portraits of his wife, Alice, are considered to be amongst his most graceful and sensitive works. However, it was his commissioned portraits of society ladies that brought him considerable fame and fortune.
Helleu was born in Vannes in 1859. As a young man he moved to Paris and supplemented his allowance by decorating plates for the ceramic artist Deck. During this period he became a close friend of John Singer Sargent whom he joined as a pupil of Jean Leon Gerome at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts and who was to buy his first painting. At this time he met and fell very much in love with Alice Guerin who was only fourteen years old, Alice's parents insisted that they could not marry until she was sixteen and even then they had to live with the Guerins for two more years.
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 to exhibit in the eighth exhibition but was urged not to do so by his friend Monet.
As Helleu's success as a society portraitist increased he was able to indulge his love of yachts and sailing which he had inherited from his father, a naval officer. He spent his summers at Deauville or Cowes mixing with both English and French Society which only served to increase his popularity. His wife enjoyed entertaining on their boat L'Etoile and Helleu painted many canvasses of life on board and other harbour scenes.