The entire oeuvre of Paul-César Helleu evokes a time of elegance and luxury. The artist’s lifetime corresponds to the period of prosperity between France’s Second Empire and the beginning of World War I, a time when France shone in the arts, Britain extended its empire and the United States demonstrated a wealth that seemed to be endless. Helleu’s life reflected his times, and after the influential aristocrat Robert de Montesquiou arranged for the young artist to execute a portrait of his cousin, the accomplished and glamorous Comtesse de Greffuhl, Helleu became one of the most sought after portraitists in Paris. Throughout his long career, Helleu enjoyed a wide circle of friends from John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini in his youthful days, to Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Jacques-Émile Blanche in his more mature years. He counted many foreign artists among his friends: James Tissot, Walter Sickert, James McNeill Whistler, Alfred Stevens and many others. Helleu moved in a truly cosmopolitan world in the time that has come to be called La Belle Époque, and he was its illustrator.
La lettre was painted in 1880 when Paul Helleu was just twenty-one at a time when he was sharing a studio in Paris with John Singer Sargent. The model is Marie Renard, a striking brunette who Helleu painted several times and who also posed for Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot. The young girl clearly made an impression on Helleu’s roommate, for Sargent began the sketches for his masterwork El jaleo, currently in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (fig. 1), at about the same time Helleu was working on La lettre and he chose to use Marie Renard as the model for the Spanish dancer (N. Bemahum, Antonio Mercé, ‘La Argentina’; Flamenco and the Spanish Avant-Garde, Watertown, 2000, p. 78). Marie was also the notorious model for Henri Gervex’s La femme au masque of 1886, in which she posed completely nude except for her black mask (fig. 2).
At the beginning of his artistic career, the young Helleu met and was painted by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini and the older artist greatly influenced Helleu’s style and decision to become a portraitist. The modeling of the young girl’s face, the sharp, quick brushstrokes and even the palette demonstrate Boldini’s influence on the developing style of his protégé. However, this is not the slavish mimicry of a mediocre artist, but rather the brilliant artistic foray of a young artist striving to create his own artistic vocabulary. Elegance and beauty were the catchwords of the day in the early 1880s, and no artist embodied these two elements more eloquently than Paul-César Helleu. Even in his early work, his innate sense of the proportion, grace and tonality of a composition brings light and drama to his figures even when they are depicted performing the most mundane of activities.
Although La lettre depicts a young woman in an interior languidly reading a letter, its envelope tossed casually on the floor at her feet, it is not a portrait in the conventional sense, but rather an ‘interior still life’. Helleu's painting can almost be described as a ‘Whistlerian’ symphony of whites (indeed Whistler was vocal in his admiration of the Helleu’s interior color scheme). The artist adds richness and elegance to the simple settee by adding texture to the French blue fabric in white; the shawl draped across the chair to the right of the composition also has its delicate pattern picked out in white. Small and simple touches of white the give definition to the chair to the left and even the toes of the young woman’s black shoes. The white envelope so casually discarded on the floor is almost a mirror reflection of the letter held aloft by its beautiful reader. Against the clear, light blues and whites that dominate the painting, Helleu has chosen to dress his model in an extraordinary earthy green skirt and black velvet jacket which is set off perfectly by white lace cuffs and color. The casual pose of the reader is echoed in the shawl thrown over the chair to the right.
This combination of strong brushwork, flashy reflections and exuberant tonal contrasts exhibits the panache and confidence that would make Helleu the darling of the aristocracy and win him acceptance among the ranks of the most fashionable artists of the day. Within the course of his long career, Helleu was welcomed into the highest echelons of Parisian society and has been favorably compared to Marcel Proust as having created a visual imagery to complement the writer’s literary descriptions of French society at the end of the 19th century.
We are grateful to Frédérique de Watrigant and Les Amis de Paul-César Helleu for confirming the authenticity of this work, which appears in their archives as no. HU-1253 and will be included in their forthcoming online catalogue raisonné.
(fig. 1): John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, 1882. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
(fig. 2): Henri Gervex, La Femme au masque, 1886.