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Paul César Helleu (French, 1859-1927)

Le Parasol

Paul César Helleu (French, 1859-1927)
Le Parasol
signed with initial 'H.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
20 ½ x 11 5/8 in. (52 x 29.5 cm.)
Lady Jane Abdy, London, thence by decent to the present owner.
A.M. Bergeret-Gourbin & M.L. Imhoff, exh. cat., Paul Helleu, Alençon, 1993, p. 148, no. 23 (illustrated p. 128)

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Lot Essay

In 1895, Paul-César Helleu was introduced to Marcel Proust by Robert de Montesquiou. A deep friendship was born between the artist and the writer, based on their very similar existential and aesthetic attitudes: the extremely refined “dandyism”, and the incessant homage to “un seul dieu: l’art, un seul maître: le Goût (R. de Montesquiou, in: Paul Helleu, Musée Bonnat, Bayonne, 1990, p. 19) interested them both. In recognition of their friendship, the character of Eltsir in Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” was based on Paul-César Helleu.

A superb interpreter of the decadent elegance of fin de siècle Paris, Helleu held a very interesting position in the capital’s artistic milieu. After a traditional training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts under Jean-Léon Gérôme, Helleu approached the painters of the new generation, more attached to the Réfusés than to the mainstream: 'attiré par les mouvemants artistiques nouveaux, il se lie d’amitié avec Degas, Monet, Rodin, Forain, Paul Bourget, mais aussi avec de jeunes peintres étrangers, Boldini, Maddrazo, Stevens, Ochoa et plus particulièrement avec Whistler et Sargent. D'abord installé dans un atelier Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, il partage, sur son invitation, l'atelier de Sargent où il peut travailler plus aisément' (ibid, p. 4). In fact Helleu was very close with the American painter John Singer Sargent, with whom he shared a studio in Paris. It was Sargent who encouraged Helleu to become a portraitist.

Widely celebrated as an artist by his contemporaries, Helleu displayed his extraordinary ability as a portraitist and his mastery of both Boldini’s spezzatura and Manet’s most researched non finito. The stylistic characteristics were extremely well received in Europe as well as America and the “style Helleu” became highly successful in Paris, London and New York.

During the 1890s Helleu became acquainted with the elite of European society and was introduced to the fashionable women who became the sitters for his portraits, such as the Comtesse de Greffulhe, who invited him to stay at her chateau where he made over one hundred sketches of her. He also met the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, whose wife, Princess Alexandra, became the subject of one of his portraits. His other illustrious sitters included Princess Patricia of Connaught, Grand Duchess Kyril of Russia, and Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American-born Duchess of Marlborough. In New York, Helleu sketched Ethel Barrymore and Mrs. Beekman, among others, and was also commissioned to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall at Grand Central Station.

Next to being a celebrated portraitist, Helleu was an avid sailor and owned several yachts during his lifetime. Indulging his passion for the sea and flush with financial success, Helleu and his wife purchased the yacht L'Étoile in 1900, the year the present lot was executed. A tray of peaches, a canvas and the elegant parasol left on the deck of a vessel form a carefree and informal composition to reflect the ease the artist felt when out on open water. In reflection of his friend Helleu, Proust has his character, the painter Elstir, say: 'Le plus grand charme d'un yacht, de l'ameublement d'un yacht, des toilettes de yachting, est leur simplicité des choses de la mer, et j'aime tant la mer'
We are grateful to Les Amis de Paul-César Helleu for authenticating this work. This work is recognized with Les Amis de Paul-César Helleu under the inventory number HU4-2736.

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