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Paul-César Helleu (French, 1859-1927)
Paul-César Helleu (French, 1859-1927)
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Property from the Robert and Nettie Benenson Foundation
Paul-César Helleu (French, 1859-1927)

Harpiste assise à l'éventail

Details
Paul-César Helleu (French, 1859-1927)
Harpiste assise à l'éventail
signed twice 'Helleu' (lower right)
pastel on canvas
47 x 43 ¼ in. (119.3 x 110.5 cm.)
Provenance
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), London.
His estate sale; Christie's, London, 27 July 1925, lot 255, as A Lady with a Harp.
with Thos. Murray & Son, Dundee, acquired at the above sale.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 27 March 1973, lot 4.
with Davidson Galleries, acquired at the above sale.
with Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner, 4 February 1976.
Literature
M. Hamel, 'L'Exposition des pastellistes,' Les lettres et les arts, Paris and New York, 1 April 1886, pp. 107, 116-117, illustrated, as Portrait.
Exhibited
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Société des pastellistes français, exposition annuelle, 3-30 April 1886, probably no. 69, as Portrait de Mlle S., le soir.

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Laura H. Mathis
Laura H. Mathis Specialist, Head of Sale

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Lot Essay

Isn’t drawing with pastels the most beautiful thing you can imagine? The surface looks like velvet; the freshness and modeling they bring can be found in no other technique.
Paul-César Helleu
After Robert de Monesquiou presented Paul-César Helleu to his cousin, the Comtesse de Greffuhle (whose portrait he did in pastels), the young artist became one of the most sought after portraitists in Paris. Helleu’s lifetime corresponds to the period of prosperity between France’s Second Empire and the beginning of World War I. France shone in the arts, Britain extended its empire and the United States demonstrated a wealth that seemed to be limitless. Helleu’s life reflected the times, he enjoyed a wide circle of friends which included artists such as John Singer Sargent (to whom the present painting belonged), Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Jacques-Émile Blanche, literary figures such as Marcel Proust, society figures and aristocrats. He counted many foreign artists among his friends; Tissot, Sickert, Whistler, Stevens and many others. Helleu moved in a truly cosmopolitan world in time that has come to be called La Belle Époque and he was its illustrator.
Harpiste assise à l’éventail should not be considered a portrait in the conventional sense, but rather an interior still life, in which the furniture and surroundings are as important as the sitter. We do not know the name of the young woman or even for certain that she is a harpist. Helleu’s composition is almost a Whistlerian symphony of blues, greys and lavenders. Indeed, Whistler was quite vocal in his admiration of Helleu’s color schemes. The rich, dark blue of the young woman’s elegant dress is picked up in the almost transparent fabric between the spines of the fan, is lightened in the upholstery of the French chair in the background and is lighter still in the pale hues of the door behind her. It is echoed again in the floral arrangement, the reflection in the mirror and in the base of the lamp in background. The entire composition is bathed in the warm glow of the lamp and the rich wood of the harp, and this golden aura provides a soothing counterpoint to the coolness of blue as a pigment.
This combination of strong strokes, flashy reflections and exuberant tonal contrasts exude the panache and confidence that made Helleu the darling of the aristocracy and secured his position among the ranks of the most fashionable artists of the day. In the course of his long career, Helleu was welcomed into the highest echelons of Parisian society and he has been favorably compared to Marcel Proust as having created a visual imagery to compliment the writer’s literary descriptions of French society at the turn of the 20th century.
We are grateful to Les Amis de Paul-César Helleu for confirming the authenticity of this work, which has been registered in their archive as n° PA-1537.

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