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Paul Cesar Helleu

Admitted into the École des Beaux-Arts in 1876, at the age of sixteen, Paul-César Helleu studied there with Jean-Léon Gerome, whom he accompanied to London in 1885. He developed a strong attachment to England, and was to return to London frequently throughout his career. In Paris, his circle of intimate friends included his fellow artists Giovanni Boldini, Alfred Stevens, James Whistler, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and, in particular, John Singer Sargent, with whom he briefly shared a studio and who bought a pastel from Helleu. He exhibited a number of large pastel portraits at the Salons of 1885 and 1886, where they were greatly admired, and his career was launched with a large exhibition of pastels at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1888. 

Although friendly with many of the Impressionist painters and invited by Degas to participate in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition of 1886, Helleu declined to do so, claiming a profound dislike of the work of Paul Gauguin. The following year he met Comte Robert de Montesquieu, who was to become his leading patron and who, in 1913, published the first important monograph on the artist. Helleu also enjoyed a long friendship with Marcel Proust, who based the character of the painter Elstir in A la recherche du temps perdu on him.

The 1890’s found Paul Helleu and his young wife Alice popular figures in polite society in both France and England, with the artist receiving numerous portrait commissions and enjoying considerable financial success. Encouraged by his friend Sargent, Helleu began travelling to America in 1902, where his reputation had preceded him, and where he achieved much success as a portrait painter (despite apparently only knowing one word of English, namely the word ‘charming’). 

It was in 1912, on his second visit to New York, that he completed his most public work, the vaulted ceiling of the main hall of Grand Central Station, painted with the signs of the zodiac and the stars of the Milky Way. Helleu’s later reputation, however, has rested primarily on his etched work, executed in the medium of drypoint. First introduced to the etching medium by James Tissot, Helleu produced a large number of portraits of fashionable women in this manner, for which he charged up to 1,200 francs. The popularity of these drypoints has, however, tended to overshadow his less numerous oil paintings and pastels. In 1931, four years after Helleu’s death, a retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Galerie Charpentier in Paris.