Pastel: 37.8(h) x 25.5(w) in /
95.9(h) x 64.8(w) cm
Signed lower left: Helleu
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Vannes 1859 – 1927 Paris
Portrait de Mademoiselle Granier
Signed centre left: Helleu.
Pastel on paper: 37 ¾ x 25 ½ in / 95.9 x 64.8 cm
Frame size: 43 x 33 in / 109.2 x 83.8 cm
In its original gilded pastel frame
Executed circa 1885-90
Private collection, France
The authenticity of this painting was confirmed in 2003 by Mme Howard Johnson, daughter of Paul-César Helleu. Its authenticity has been reconfirmed in 2011 by Mme Frédérique de Watrigant, Presidente de l’Association des Amis de Paul César Helleu; it will be reproduced in the catalogue raisonné of Helleu which is currently in preparation. APCH inventory no. PAS_917415797
Paul-César Helleu, a leading member of the Société des Pastellistes, exhibited from 1883 until 1890 a number of pastels which are harmonies in blue, gold and yellow, studies in grey or brown. From 1885 he obtained great success and attracted laudatory articles from critics such as Joris Karl Huysmans, Octave Mirbeau and Roger Marx.
Helleu particularly liked the medium of pastel for its lightness and delicacy, its transparency which gave grace and evanescence to his models. In his portraits taken from life, Helleu seized the movement, the sweet gestures of his models, expressing, in Edmond de Goncourt’s famous phrase, the ‘instantanés de la grace de la femme’. Helleu’s pastels breathe an atmosphere of almost Symbolist mystery, a little ‘Whistlerian’.
In this pastel of Mademoiselle Granier, Helleu suggests an atmosphere of intimacy. We notice, as so often in his pastels, the desire to limit tones, here the dominant colours of blue, brown and cream. The soft relief of the girl’s face, her serious expression, the intense glance of her beautiful blue eyes transfix the painter. Her fringe and long curls of brown hair frame her face, emphasizing the creamy perfection of her skin and her bright blue eyes. This portrait expresses with sincerity the grace and beauty of the child. We note the delicacy of the representation of the lace on the collar and the sleeves of the dress.
Mme Frédérique de Watrigant, Presidente de l’Association des Amis de Paul César Helleu.
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.