Known for his stunning portraits of women in European high society, Paul Cesar Helleu was one of the leading artists of the Belle Époque.
He was a student of Jean Leon Gerome at the École des Beaux-Arts, and close friends with fellow artists including John Singer Sargent, Whistler, Rodin and Monet. He also met Giovanni Boldini, who would greatly influence his work. After graduation, he apprenticed with Théodore Deck at the Ceramique Française, while continuing to develop his skill as a painter.
In 1884 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Alice Guerin, and he immediately fell under her spell. They married two years later, with Alice taking on the dual roles of wife and muse. She remained his favorite model throughout his life, though he received commissions from many of the wealthiest and most beautiful women in Europe.
After becoming friends with James Tissot in 1885, Tissot gave the artist his diamond stylus – a momentous occurrence that changed the artist’s life. Over the following decades, he dedicated himself to the drypoint medium, often printing only one or two copies of each subject. No other artist was able to capture with such panache the luxurious fashions and elegance of women in highest echelons of society. His sitters included such luminaries as Queen Alexandra of England, Princess Patricia of Connaught, Comtesse de Greffulhe, and one favorites: Consuelo Vanderbilt — the American born Duchess of Marlborough. His prominent clientele introduced him into society both in Europe and the United States. Through his contacts, he received a major commission in 1912 to design the ceiling of the Great Hall at Grand Central Station in New York – a work that is still greatly admired.
The advent of World War I heralded the end of the Belle Époque and the conspicuous consumption of his elite clientele. Helleu began to concentrate more on painting, with subject matter including majestic cathedrals, formal gardens, and vibrant still life compositions. It is interesting to note that before his death in 1927, he destroyed most all of his copper plates.
Helleu’s work remains much in demand today and is featured in major museum and private collections worldwide.