French artist Paul César Helleu was one of the leading artists of the Belle Epoque era in Europe. His fantastical visions of fashionable women of the upper classes and trendy society of the modern Paris scene earnt him international acclaim. His works define an era.
Like many prominent French artists, Helleu studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This was one of the foremost centres for art training in Europe, and Helleu’s education would equip him with a thorough understanding of figure and composition. These skills that would become extremely useful as Helleu became swept up in the decadence and exuberance of the Belle Epoque.
The Belle Epoque lasted from roughly 1870 to the beginning of the First World War. It was a time of booming progress and prosperity in Europe, with Paris the beating heart of the fast-flowing changes in economics, technology, and the arts. As the name denotes, beauty was a key element of this prosperous period of time, and upper-class patrons would often employ artists to paint their portrait in a sumptuous manner. This in turn enhanced an artist’s reputation, pulling more and more clients towards the allure of their brush. Thanks to the mass production of prints, these works would reach an even larger audience until artist’s became not only participators in the Belle Epoque, but the leaders, too.
Helleu was in good company, and indeed it was his friendships with other artists which bolstered his early career. Helleu began his professional painting career as a ceramic artist at Théodore Deck’s workshop. However, it was his friendship with John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), the leader of posh portraiture in Britain, that majorly encouraged Helleu. Helleu even sold his first painting to Sargent. Indeed, Helleu was surrounded by the likes of Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, and Giovanni Boldini. These pioneers of the gloriously impassioned style of Belle Epoque art surely rubbed off on Helleu as he began to produce portraiture.
There was not one style of art which was dominant during the Belle Epoque, in fact the energetic atmosphere encouraged painters to play with different styles. Helleu was particularly fond of oil and pastel when he began his career. He masterfully captures expression and character through both mediums, and the bold inflections of colour he strikes into details enhances the vitality of his works. The juxtaposition of soft, blended skin tones with sharp, dramatic strokes in the hair and clothing of his sitters adds an energy to his work. It seems it was an early client, Alice Guérin, who ignited such an astute painterly perception. Helleu became bewitched by Alice, and she would eventually become his wife and his muse. Her influence on his work should not be understated.
It was Helleu’s introduction to dry point etching which really propelled his career into stratospheric heights. Dry point etching involves the scratching of a design onto a metal plate which is then printed onto paper with ink. It was another artist who was to thank for such a prosperous change of medium. James Tissot gave to Helleu his own dry point stylus, and thus released the catapult which would launch Helleu into the dizzying heights of fame. In his dry point etchings, the vitality present in his other works is transcended. He refines the energy of his sitters into cleverly considered lines and communicates both their material and expressive wealth with refinement. He was praised for this delicate handling of the fineries of the upper classes, avoiding an overly saccharine saturation. ‘Never another line to worry or make it heavy,’ critics would praise.
It was the mass production of these dry point etchings which sealed Helleu’s place as one of the greats of the Belle Epoque, and travels to Britain and America would propel his fame across international waters. He captured clients such as Consuelo Vanderbilt of America and Queen Alexandra of Britain. It was his French clientele, however, who were the heart of his work, and many critics saw him as a defining artist of French beauty.
Helleu also produced a small array of works other than portraiture, including landscapes and still life. Interestingly, he is also to thank for the stunning celestial zodiac chart decorating the main hall of Grand Central Station in New York City. Helleu worked with the architect Witney Warren to produce the design, and it is reflective of the opulence of the Belle Epoque, translated for an American audience.
It was not until the dawning of the First World War that the glories of the Belle Epoque fell away, replaced with the desolation and fear of conflict. Helleu never saw the same success, although his place in history had already been sealed in oil, pastel, and dry point. He was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1904, the highest order of merit in France. Helleu was a master of beauty and captured the burgeoning life of the Belle Epoque in every brushstroke and careful mark.
Born in Vannes, France.
Began studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris.
Began close friendship with John Singer Sargent.
Married Alice Guérin.
Awarded the Légion d’honneur.
Commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Main Hall of Grand Central Station, New York City.
Robert de Montesquiou publishes biography of Helleu.
Died in Paris.