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PRINTS BY PAUL CESAR HELLEU FROM A NEW YORK COLLECTION
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Regarded as the 'master of elegance', Helleu's work is admired daily by thousands of New York commuters at Grand Central Station, over which his ceiling design depicting the signs of the zodiac has presided since 1912. Despite his classical training, Helleu embraced the Impressionist Movement early in his career and became friends with Monet, Renoir, Degas, Sargent and Tissot.
His fluid and spontaneous style is well suited to the drypoint technique, but it was not until 1895 that Helleu began to work consistently in the medium, with Walter Sickert purportedly assisting in the production of his first plate. James Tissot had long been recognised as the master etcher of La Belle Époque (see lot 220) and it was he who recognised Helleu's talents as a draughtsman, suggesting that he work in drypoint. He even presented him with his precious diamond-tipped drypoint needle and other tools.
As well as enjoying the company of his fellow artists, Helleu and his wife Alice were introduced into Paris and London society by Robert Montesquiou-Fezensac, Symbolist poet, art collector and reputedly the inspiration for Baron de Charlus in A la recherche du temps perdu. Together they attended fashionable salons, often with Proust, who modelled the character Elsir after Helleu. Many of the aristocratic women who moved in these circles sat for him - but only if they were beautiful. It is said that he refused to draw elderly or ugly women and rarely depicted men, with the exception of Proust on his deathbed in 1922.
The luxurious fabrics of his models' clothing and the delicacy of their features are accentuated by the drypoint technique. As the point of the engraving tool is dragged through the metal plate a 'burr' is thrown up. This burr holds the pigment when the plate is inked and thus creates the velvety lines which Helleu employed to great effect, in his depiction of the sumptuous fur coats and feathered hats worn by his chic female sitters. He employed the same richness of line to produce intensely intimate portraits of his wife and children.
Following the end of the First World War and the onset of the Roaring Twenties Helleu, realising that La Belle Epoque had passed, decided to retire to family life. However, his legacy as the master of elegant society portraiture endures and is clearly demonstrated in the following examples of his graphic work.