“He was the most adept, the most gifted, Manet, Monet, Renoir believed as did we,” wrote his dear friend Jacques-Emile Blanche about Paul César Helleu. Helleu made his mark in Gérôme’s studio, where his talent and sure artistic taste fascinated his companions. By 1880, he painted portraits for Deck, the ceramicist in whose studio he made friends with Boldini. He entered the Salon of 1882 with a portrait and this is the genre which led him to fame: as an elegant dandy, his slender silhouette always clothed in black was noticed by Robert de Montesquiou, the refined intellectual, arbiter of good taste during the Belle Epoque. Whistler and Boldini, Debussy and Fauré, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Proust, Goncourt, and Mallarmé among his entourage. A man of the world, Helleu rapidly became one of the favorite portraitists of the Parisian jet set.
Attracted from the beginning to Impressionism, Paul Helleu had ventured into every genre from seascapes to landscape, and concluded with some bitterness that he had been reduced to the image of a “fashionable portraitist” who would never be up to par in landscape; by the end of the 1890’s, encouraged by his success in the area and doubting his painting, he only presented drawings and dry points at the Salon.
“Flower-women, child-women, these are Helleu’s real sitters, rare master of elegance,” wrote Monesquiou, as he recalled how much woman was at the heart of the work of an artist who only wished to have young beautiful women as sitters. Even if he could be flighty, Helleu remained tenderly attached to his wife and children throughout his life. His salon painted in white, decorated with Louis XVI furniture and gilded frames, was also his studio, the site of intimate expressive scenes without affectation. Helleu never tired of seizing occasions to depict both the gracefulness of his favorite sitter his wife Alice and the games of his children - Ellen, Jean, and Paulette - in pencil or dry point.
Born in 1905, the Helleu’s younger daughter was already aware of the pleasures of drawing at a very young age, as Madame Helleu remembered: kneeling and looking at a box of drawings with Paulette (Paris, Louvre Museum), or Paulette as a child kneeling and drawing on a large sheet (Paris, Louvre Museum). The young girl had the feline gracefulness of her mother, her slightly tip-tilted nose, fine features and voluminous red hair. Paul Helleu surprised her here at the corner of the apartment seated with her legs crossed, her gaze lowered to the drawing which she is making: one finds the same expression in Paulette Seated at the End of a <<settee near her Mother (Paris, Louvre Museum).
Helleu drew rapidly, almost hastily. The sanguine is applied here in firm free strokes with sure movements and no stumping. This is the same profile as that of Paulette Seated, three-quarter view to the left, drawing, and of Bust Portrait of Paulette (Paris, Louvre Museum), but the concentrated expression of the child gives way to the saucy grace of the young girl, the “woman as flower.”
The artist’s gaze can be detected here, along with paternal affection, one is reminded by what he wrote to Paulette in 1921 in regard to a dry point depicting her which was admired in the United States where he was travelling: “Your engraving met with surprising success. It’s that I love you very much and that must have been engraved by me as I did it.”
We would like to thank Mme. Frédérique de Watrigant for having confirmed the attribution of our drawing, which will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of the artist.
Frédérique L. de WATRIGANT (dir.), Paul-César Helleu, Paris, Somogy, 2014.
Francesca DINI (dir.), Boldini, Helleu, Sem : protagonisti e miti della Belle Epoque, Milan, Skira, 2006.
Anne-Marie BERGERET-GOURBIN, Marie-Lucie IMHOFF, Paul Helleu, 1859-1927, exh. cat., Honfleur, Musée Eugène Boudin, 1993.