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Paul-César Helleu (French, 1859-1927)
Paul-César Helleu (French, 1859-1927)

Madame Helleu à son bureau

Paul-César Helleu (French, 1859-1927)
Madame Helleu à son bureau
signed 'Helleu' (lower left)
oil on canvas
30¾ x 22¾ in. (78.1 x 57.8 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 24 June 1988, lot 85.
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Paul César Helleu, 1931, no. 16.
Dieppe, Musée de Dieppe, Paul Helleu, 1962, no. 17.

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Lot Essay

Paul Helleu first met his future wife, Alice Guérin, then only fourteen years old, when he was commissioned to paint her portrait in 1884. They fell in love and were married two years later. Alice remained the artist's favorite model throughout his life and a muse for many other artists; beautiful and refined, she also helped introduce her husband into the elite circle of artists, writers and society figures of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The Count de Montesquiou, a noted dandy and leading figure in the artist's group of friends, described her as 'La multiforme Alice, dont la rose chevelure illumine de son reflet tant de miroirs de cuivre.'
Helleu eschewed standard conventions of portrait composition, often depicting his sitters from behind - at a mirror, desk, or picture exhibition - or at strong raking angles, which enhanced the line and swagger of his subjects. These betrayed the influence of fellow artists and mentors, in particular his friends John Singer Sargent, James Whistler and Giovanni Boldini.
Helleu and his wife were known for their exquisite taste. The present lot depicts the artist's wife seated at a secrétaire in the couple's drawing room of their Paris apartment, into which they moved in 1888. The Helleu home soon became noted for its decor: walls dressed in various shades of white and hung with 18th century drawings by artists such as Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard (an influence revealed in Helleu's own extensive use of red chalk) and works by contemporaries such as Manet and Degas; a mix of fine 18th century and Empire furniture; and a variety of oriental works which reflected the vogue for Japonisme, such as the porcelain koi carp hanging in the upper left corner. The desk in the present lot features in numerous works by the artist and is still in the artist's family; the painting hanging above it is Boldini's Leda and the Swan.
The present lot cannot be considered a portrait in the conventional sense, but rather an interior still life, in which the furniture and surroundings are as integral as the sitter. In its subject and palette, Helleu's painting is superficially similar to the interior paintings of his Danish contemporary, Vilhelm Hammershoi, which depicted his wife Ida, often from behind, in the interior of their Copenhagen home. The overall effect, however, could not be more different: whereas the latter's works convey a sense of solitude and melancholy, which are conveyed in muted tones and pools of light, Helleu's paintings are executed in a much higher key, with strong brushwork, flashy reflections and exuberant tonal contrasts, which exude panache and confidence. Helleu's painting can almost be described as a Whistlerian symphony of whites (indeed Whistler was vocal in his admiration of the Helleus' interior color scheme). The strongly vertical axis of the composition is reinforced by the shape of he desk, the legs of the chairs, and Mme. Helleu's upright pose, but softened by the loose brushwork, shimmering reflections and muted colors, and the shock of the bright pink hatbox resting against the wall. The whole conveys the sense of easy, apparently informal, but ultimately artful, elegance which defined Helleu and his circle.

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