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› Portrait d'Helleu par Gerschel
 
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Friends of Paul César HELLEU

Paul Helleu's name brings up impressions of a whole era, particularly the end of the XIXth century and its mundane society until the First World War period, which Marcel Proust so admirably described in his works.
The delicacy, the taste and the very personal talent of Helleu as a draftsman widely contributed to his extraordinary success as an artist. His celebrity rests on the brilliant representation of attractive women from the Paris high society, but also from the international high society, dominated by Anglo-Saxon elegance.
Art history has had a tendency to restrict his talent and his works to a whimsical fashion of his period, failing to take into account that a wide range of his artistic production was dedicated to the painting of nature, seascapes in particular, where refinement blends with the mastery of real artist’s sensitivity and acumen.
Helleu was born in Vannes, Brittany, in 1859. After his father - a Customs inspector - died, Helleu was sent to Paris to the College Chaptal. In 1876, he was accepted at the Ecoles des Beaux-Arts in Paris, in Gérôme’s studio, although he was mainly attracted by the painters of the outdoors.

He befriended Whistler and Sargent, then Monet, whom he met at Durand-Ruel, during the Impressionists’ second exhibition.

To survive, Helleu worked for the ceramist Deck for whom he painted dishes. He met Giovanni Boldini with whom he shared a very long friendship.

Beginning with a journey to London in 1885, Helleu shared a passion for England with Jacques-Emile Blanche. This same year he experimented in engraving with a diamond point given by James Tissot.

In 1884, Madam Guérin commissioned Helleu with a portrait of her daughter Alice, then 14-years-old. He desperately fell in love with her and they married two years later. The said portrait of Alice and a painting of The Station Saint Lazare are exhibited at the 1885 Show.

In 1886, even though his works were acclaimed at several exhibitions, Helleu refuses, with his friend Monet, to participate in the 8th Show, in spite of Degas’ requests.

The following year, Robert de Montesquiou bought him a set of 6 engravings.

This was the beginning of a deep friendship with the collector who introduced him to his cousin the Countess Greffuhle. From this moment, the artist stepped into the Parisian society and became a fashionable portraitist.

In 1893, he began a series on cathedrals and stained-glass windows, but the following year, he changed subjects and lingered over the Park of Versailles. In 1897, he exhibited his paintings of Versailles and seascapes at the Champ de Mars Show.

Helleu was an innovator who triggered the admiration and the curiosity of his contemporaries. Contrary to the pronounced taste of the time for dark interiors, in 1889, he had the walls of his flat at 68, Boulevard Pereire, and another at 45, rue Émile Ménier painted all in white.

Helleu was soon sought everywhere: Edmond de Goncourt wrote a foreword to the catalogue of his 1895 exhibition in London, an additional consecration of Helleu’s fame. Montesquiou introduced him to Marcel Proust which was the start of a long and close friendship, Helleu came to inspire Proust, the character of the painter Elstir in “In Search of Lost Time”. After Proust died, Helleu engraved the author’s portrait on his deathbed.

The sea fascinates Helleu. As a yachtsman, he spent most of his time on magnificent yachts, (he became the owner of four yachts). There, the painter discovered new sources of inspiration, from women’s outfits to his visions of sea and sky, sometimes veiled, sometimes bluish.

Helleu’s style, characterized by feminine grace and refinement, met tremendous success in Paris, London and New York, where he started with a visit in 1902. His portraits of elegant women earned him a great success in the United States, and in 1912, he was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the main hall of New York’s Grand Central Station: a starry vault, crossed by gold zodiacal signs and a silvery milky way.

He died in 1927 after a surgery, while he was planning a large exhibition of his paintings with Forain.
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