Madame Helleu sur le 'Bird' (ou Madame Helleu en mer)
Oil on canvas: 23(h) x 25.5(w) in /
58.4(h) x 64.8(w) cm
Signed lower left: Helleu
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Vannes 1859 – 1927 Paris
Madame Helleu sur le Bird (ou Madame Helleu en mer)
Signed lower left: Helleu
Oil on canvas: 23 x 25 ½ in / 58.4 x 64.8 cm
Frame size: 31 x 34 x 3 in / 78.7 x 86.4 x 7.6 cm
Painted in 1899
Christie’s London, 24th November 1989, lot 69
Sotheby’s New York, 7th May 1998, lot 248
Private collection, USA
Paris, Galerie Jean Charpentier, Exposition Paul Helleu, 3rd-17th November 1931, no.30
Dieppe, Musée de Dieppe, Le Bains de Mer, June-September 1962, no.24
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Exposition Marcel Proust, 1965, no.274
Frédérique de Watrigant, Paul-César Helleu, pp.226-7, illus. in colour
Born in Vannes on the Breton coast, Paul-César Helleu had yachting in his blood. From the 1890s his success as a society portraitist allowed him to develop a passion for sailing, which was to provide many motifs for his pictures. He wrote to Monet in the summer of 1896: ‘We have spent a month in Guernsey with Madame Hugo….A friend had a yacht and I went from Cherbourg to Saint Malo, and all along the coast. I have tried to paint yachts, but it’s really too difficult. You’ve got to study them like racehorses and besides, they’re constantly moving’.
In 1898 Helleu rented a yacht, the Barbara, to try to give his beloved wife Alice some comfort after a family tragedy. The following year he purchased the Bird, the first of several yachts that he owned. The Helleus summered in Deauville and sailed the Channel to equally fashionable Cowes, where the Royal Yacht Squadron hosted Cowes Week and the artist mingled with members of British high society who also became his clients.
This painting depicts Alice relaxing on the bridge of the Bird, her lithe, elegant figure dressed in the pale colours that Helleu loved: he was among the first, in the mid-1880s, to dispense with gloomy nineteenth century interiors and paint his apartment white. Alice was always exquisitely dressed, sometimes by Worth and Doucet, but usually by Madame Chéruit. Her white parasol, hat and blouse are shot through with coloured shadows of lilac, grey, buttermilk and eau-de-nil, her pensive, poetic face hidden by the gauze of her veil. Her shimmering figure is thrown into contrast by the royal blue of the sea, the sailors’ navy uniforms and the burnished orange-brown of the yacht’s woodwork. Painted with long licks and dabs of colour, the vitality of the handling conjures up the brisk breeze and the speed of the yacht.
Paul-César Helleu had met the flame-haired Alice Guérin in 1884, when she was fourteen and he twenty-four; they married two years later. Described by her daughter Paulette, Mrs Howard-Johnson, as having ‘a great deal of taste, a sharp mind and an unfailingly sweet nature’, Alice remained Helleu’s muse for the rest of his life. Alice and her children were frequently portrayed by Helleu aboard the family’s various yachts, Alice usually an impeccable vision in white. Figaro Illustré in September 1901 devoted a whole issue to Helleu’s yachting pictures, seeing yachting as a defining passion of the times: ‘L’amusant, le joli, le passionnant bibelot qu’un yacht, surtout un yacht à voiles! Et si moderne, si expressif des moeurs et des élégances d’aujourd’hui!’
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.
 Quoted in Watrigant, op. cit., p.64.
 Quoted in Watrigant, ibid., p.272.
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