John Singer Sargent was undoubtedly one of the most significant formal portraitists of the fin-de-siècle glitterati, both in America and abroad. However, the artist’s more casual depictions of his friends and colleagues represent an arguably more meaningful segment of his oeuvre, in which he could experiment stylistically while representing subjects more inherently sympathetic and reminiscent of his own daily life. Madame Helleu exemplifies this part of Sargent’s career, employing expressive brushwork and creative lighting to create an evocative depiction of his close friend's wife that transcends the category of mere portraiture.
In the summer of 1889, Sargent lived with his mother and sisters, and a coterie of visiting artist friends, in an 18th-century home called Fladbury Rectory in the town of Pershore along the River Avon in Worcestershire, England. Experimenting with Impressionist techniques and ways of combining portraiture with landscape and genre scene elements, Sargent painted several oils of his friends and family there, including fellow artist Paul Helleu and his wife Madame Helleu, née Alice Louis-Guérin. Sargent had a well-documented, long-lived friendship with Helleu, whom he fondly nicknamed Leuleu. The two men met when Sargent was twenty-two and Helleu eighteen, and the younger man was immediately impressed with Sargent’s experienced, cultured demeanor. Sargent purchased a pastel from Helleu when he was struggling, a gesture which greatly boosted his friend’s confidence and career, and continued to introduce and promote him even several years later. A frequent companion on trips around Europe and at cafés in Paris, Helleu along with his wife acted as models for Sargent several times. One of the most famous works from the 1889 summer at Fladbury is a plein-air painting of the couple lounging along the riverside entitled Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife (An Out-of-Doors Study) in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York.
In the present work Sargent depicts Madame Helleu by lamplight, with her striking pale face dramatically illuminated against an otherwise dark interior. Under this artificial light, her flouncy white blouse and beautifully elegant hands reflect in shadows and highlights in the table upon which she rests her arms. Sargent plays with the lines of her clothing, and their imperfect reflections, using broad gestural strokes to add movement and vivacity to the otherwise subdued pose. With her aquiline profile and vibrant red hair, the work is at once utterly casual and of-the-moment as well as full of dramatic contrasts and artistic expression. When exhibited at the Reinhardt Gallery in 1931, a critic described, "the one element of surprise in an exhibition that on the whole adheres to accepted painters in their accepted styles, is the Sargent portrait of Mme. Helleu. This vivid sketch of the pale-red-haired beauty, proves beyond a doubt that the Sargent embargo is no more sane than the exaggerated Sargent vogue." (K.G. Sterne, "On View in the New York Galleries," Parnassus, October 1931, p. 7)
The former owner of the present work, Frank Phillips, founded Phillips Petroleum with his brother Lee in 1917. Known to his employees as "Uncle Frank," Phillips served the company and his community passionately, until his retirement in 1949. Phillips was also a veracious collector of Western American Art, with his vast collection now constituting that of the Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.