Helleu, Paul César

1859 – 1927

Helleu knew as a young boy in Vannes that he wanted to be an artist and even the premature death of his father and subsequent loss of financial security did not deter him from seeking an education in the arts in Paris. He enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts and supported himself with an apprenticeship at the ceramist Theodore Deck where his marvelous plate decorations established him as a gifted painter of women’s portraits. He soon became friends with some of the leading artists of the day, including Tissot, Whistler, Monet, Sargent, Rodin and Alfred Stevens, who recognized his great talent and encouraged him to continue his endeavors not only in oils and pastels, but in prints as well. It was, in fact, Tissot, in a state of despair after the death of Kathleen Newton and determined never to make etchings again, who gave his engraving diamond and tools to Helleu and effectively opened up a new medium of expression to this budding artist.

In 1884, Helleu was commissioned to paint a portrait of a young Alice Guérin with whom he fell madly in love and married two years later. He adored her throughout their life together and the image of Alice and their children was the subject of many of his drawings and prints.

In 1886 Helleu had the good fortune to meet le compte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, who became his patron and introduced him to the aristocracy of Paris. He was very well liked and before long society ladies were clamoring to have Helleu do their portraits. Soon his client list read like a “Who’s Who” of Paris and London with the Duchess of Marlborough and the Countess of Greffulhe among his better-known models.

Helleu’s portraits were usually drawn in a large format with sweeping lines and with the face and head occupying most of the space. This style of drawing was very well suited to be printed as a drypoint engraving which emphasized the sketchy quality without heavy tonalities. Helleu’s drypoints were only published in very small editions, often fewer than 20 examples, and he was able to maintain very high standards in the quality of the prints.

Of all the famous and beautiful women whom Helleu immortalized in print, it was his wife whom he drew with the greatest respect and admiration. His many portraits of the enchanting Alice are among his most outstanding images — emotionally intimate, delicately colored, and imbued with love.

Helleu also moved among literary circles and became great friends with Marcel Proust who based the character of the painter Elstir in “A la recherche du temps perdu” on his friend. He requested Helleu do his portrait on his deathbed — and in 1922 Helleu obliged with a profile done in drypoint.

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 that 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 Époque 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 aesthetic 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.