John Singer Sargent was by no means the only prodigious and successful painter of portraits to the wealthy in the late nineteenth century. Among his close friends was Paul César Helleu (1859–1927) who had started his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris when he was only sixteen. That same year, Helleu visited the Second Impressionist Exhibition where he met Sargent, Whistler and others. It was Sargent who started Helleu’s career, when he was the first to buy the younger artist’s work, for the astonishing sum of a thousand francs.
As another classically trained painter, who had studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme, Helleu proved as adept at applying pastels as he was with oils.
In 1884, Helleu was commissioned to paint this Portrait of Alice Louis-Guérin, who was only fourteen at the time. They fell in love, and when she turned sixteen they married. She introduced her husband to circles of the wealthy, ensuring that his painting prospered financially.
Helleu’s portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough from about 1900 combines perfect, smooth blending over her face with vigorous mark-making through the fabrics and the ornate frame of the chair, as shown in the detail below. Consuelo Vanderbilt-Balsan, as she became, lived between 1877-1964, so would have been in her early twenties at the time. Daughter of a New York railroad magnate, she married the ninth Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer-Churchill, five years earlier, but separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921.
I know nothing about this pastel portrait of Camara painted by Helleu in 1905, other than its unmistakable style. Another of the artist’s early friendships was with the Italian ‘master of swish’, Giovanni Boldini, who like Sargent was on the periphery of Impressionism.
Helleu’s Lady with Flowers from 1910 is more restrained in its strokes of pastel, but adheres to the same formula for portraiture.
In his later pastels, such as this Portrait of a Woman from about 1920, he left strokes unblended across the face, giving the work a more radical look.
The following year, Helleu painted Kathlene Martyn (1921), who performed with the Ziegfeld Follies in New York and later went on to appear in movies.
This undated portrait of a Young Woman with a Black Hat also has more texture in the face, suggesting it’s one of Helleu’s later pastels.
Although primarily a successful portraitist, Helleu also painted other subjects in pastels, including this pot of Arum Lilies.
Paul Helleu realised he had fallen out of touch with the rush of art in the nineteen-twenties. Although so many of his pastels seem to have disappeared, there’s one place where his painting gets a good viewing every day. In 1912, during his second visit to the US, he was commissioned to paint the ceiling decoration in Grand Central Terminal, New York. His night sky with zodiac was covered in the nineteen-thirties, but restored in 1998. It’s such a shame, though, that he couldn’t have painted that in pastels.