Paul Cesar Helleu
Paul Cesar Helleu (French 1859-1927)
Paul César Helleu was born in Vannes, France in 1859. As a young boy he immediately took a passionate interest in art. His father died when Paul César was still young and his mother was not keen on her son following the unstable profession of an artist. Helleu was however, a determined young man and by the age of seventeen he had moved to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Helleu rejected the classical academic approach to painting that he was taught at art school and instead embraced Impressionism. Helleu formed close friendships with Degas, Rodin, Renoir and particularly Monet who became a close friend and companion.
Helleu’s closest friend was John Singer Sargent and it was he who inspired Helleu to become a portraitist. In 1884, Helleu was invited by Monsieur and Madame Guérin to execute a portrait of their fourteen year old daughter Alice - Helleu immediately fell madly in love with her. In 1886 they were married, Alice being only sixteen years old. During the early 1890s, Helleu and his young wife were popular figures in the aristocratic circles frequented by the élite of European society. Helleu forged friendships with many of the greatest authors of the time. Marcel Proust held Helleu in high regard and used him as a model for the artist Elistir in his epic work, A la recherche du temps perdu. Helleu adored the company of beautiful women and was introduced to many elegant, fashionable women who became principle sitters for his portraits.
Helleu’s wife Alice was undoubtedly his favourite model, she was charming, refined and graceful and his portraits of her are drawn with intimate sensitivity. In his portrait of her, Alice Helleu is depicted with her back to the viewer, sitting at a secretaire in her husband’s study, wearing an elegant white dress, which is in harmony with the colours of the room. Despite the fashion for sombre interiors, Paul and Alice Helleu decorated their homes entirely in shades of white. The walls were white and furniture upholstered in white Louis XIV damask. This innovative design scheme won instant approval from Oscar Wilde and James McNeil Whistler and formed the background for Helleu’s paintings and etchings.
Helleu started his artistic career as a ceramist, but at the age of 17 he came to Paris to study under Gérôme, the academic painter, learning to paint such scenes as landscapes and churches. He soon began his career of painting and etching portraits, for which he is know universally known. His subjects were the sophisticated ladies of the belle époque era - the society described in the novels of Marcel Proust . He was a great wit and dandy and was described by the greatest aesthete of the day, Robert de Montesquieu, as the 'Master of Elegance'. Amongst his close friends were Monet, Whistler, Sargent and particularly J.J.Tissot. Tissot had bee the master etcher of the Belle Époque but he recognized Helleu's great talent in drawing and persuaded him in 1885 to begin making drypoints. To encourage Helleu, Tissot gave him a diamond point which enhanced his unique talent. His prints included the splendid society portraits of elegant ladies in superb hats and the intimate portraits of his own family and close friends.
Helleu traveled often to England, Holland, and even the United States. In 1912 he received the commission to paint the ceiling of New York's Grand Central Terminal, a masterpiece which was recently cleaned and restored to the great pleasure of the commuting public who still pause to look up at his nighttime sky en route to their trains.
However, by Helleu's last trip to New York, in 1920, the fashion had changed and his popularity had faded. The elegance of the Belle Epoque had been replaced by the Roaring Twenties and women no longer wished to be portrayed in his elegant, romantic style. The trip convinced him that he was no longer in touch with the post World War I esthetic and he went into retirement upon returning to France. He destroyed the copper plates from which his drypoints had been printed and retreated into his family life. Helleu died of peritonitis in 1927.