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Paul-César Helleu - “Madame Helleu et son fils sur le bateau BIRD", sketch

Renowned for his precise and impressionist rendering of the elegance of “la Belle Epoque", Paul César Helleu expresses all the spontaneity of a happy family life in this wildly sketched and colored study. His beautiful wife Alice and his three children Ellen, Jean and Paulette were his favourite models, which may explain the intimacy emanating so often from their portraits.

In 1876, Paul Helleu entered the “Ecole des Beaux-Arts" in Paris under the tutelage of the renowned Academic painter Gérôme. He soon became friends with some of the leading artists of the day, including Whistler, Tissot, Monet, Rodin and Alfred Stevens. They recognized his great talent in drawing and encouraged him to begin making drypoints, a printing technique, while Helleu's closest friend John Singer Sargent inspired him to become a portraitist. Combining these two talents, Helleu's career was born. His portrait engravings were among the finest of the period.

Paul Helleu became the portrait master of the literary and aristocratic circles of Paris, London and New York in the “Belle Epoque". A socialite himself, he was in great demand and soon his client list read like a “Who's Who" of the International elite. Helleu's work is now seen as a great testimony of the 1900's Society described in the novels of Marcel Proust as well as the feminine beauty and elegance of that era. Neither before nor since has anyone matched the virtuosity of his technique of capturing the grace and beauty of his sitters posing in fashionable dresses with sophisticated hairstyles.

In 1904, he was awarded the Legion d'honneur and became an honorary member of the most important Beaux-Arts societies in Paris and London. In 1912, he was commissioned to paint the astrological ceiling decoration in New York's Grand Central Station, which has since become a landmark.

In 1884, Helleu was commissioned to paint a portrait of Alice Guérin, with whom he fell madly in love and married two years later. Of all the famous and beautiful women Helleu immortalized in print, he drew his wife with the greatest respect and admiration. His many portraits of the enchanting Alice and their three children are among his most outstanding images; emotionally intimate, and imbued with love.

Helleu used Japanese papers for his chalk drawings. He used one of the “Torinoko" papers that has no wire marks of any kind and has a close, even texture. It is a fibrous type of kind of paper and the grain is receptive to chalk pigment. None of these papers is sized but they have the advantage of taking the powder left by the chalk or pastel with great effect, and throw up in relief the white chalk that Helleu used as one of his three colors.

The white that he used is an artificially prepared calcium carbonate which, at its finest and purest form, is called chalk; it is the basis of most pastels. The black charcoal is a very old medium and is usually vine, willow or other twigs charred for use as crayons. The other color, sanguine, is a rectangular “conte"-type chalk crayon, made of compressed pigment and is a traditional material of long standing and great durability.


Helleu is listed in all the major reference Art dictionaries: Benezit, Grove, Davenport, Mallett...

-R. de Montesquieu: Paul Helleu: Peintre et Graveur, Paris, 1913

Object information

Pastel and charcoal on paper relined on canvas.
60 x 77 cm
Private collection W.V., Belgium, 2008; Private collection Axel Vervoordt, Belgium, 1989.

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