Paul César Helleu (French, 1927)

Paul César Helleu (French, 1859–1927) was a printmaker and painter, famous for his portraits of well-known aristocratic women. Born in Brittany, France, Helleu studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824–1904) at the École des Beaux-Arts. While in Paris, Helleu befriended many of his contemporaries, such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903), John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926), and Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917); Sargent would become an important collector and proponent of Helleu’s work. In 1912, he traveled to New York City where he was commissioned to paint the astrological ceiling mural over Grand Central Station’s central hall. His work is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York.


Admitted into the École des Beaux-Arts in 1870, Paul-César Helleu studied with Jean-Léon Gerome, whom he accompanied to London in 1885. He developed a strong attachment to England, and was to return to London almost every year. In Paris, his circle of intimate friends included his fellow artists Edgar Degas, Giovanni Boldini, Alfred Stevens, James Whistler and John Singer Sargent. At the Salons of 1885 and 1886 he exhibited a number of large pastel portraits; these were greatly admired and secured his reputation. Invited by Degas to participate in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition of 1886, Helleu declined to do so, claiming a profound dislike of the work of Paul Gauguin. The following year Helleu met Comte Robert de Montesquiou, who was to become his leading patron and who, in 1913, published the first important monograph on the artist. He also enjoyed a long friendship with Marcel Proust, who based the character of the painter Elstir in A la recherche du temps perdu on him. Helleu’s later reputation, however, has rested primarily on his etched work, executed in the medium of drypoint. First introduced to the etching medium by James Tissot, Helleu produced a large number of portraits of fashionable women in this manner, the popularity of which has tended to overshadow his oil paintings and pastels.