Throughout his career, Paul Helleu made many charming, intimate drawings and sketches – often in a distinctive 'trois crayons' technique - of his wife and their three children, as well as relatives and family friends. The present large sheet is a portrait of the artist’s favourite model, his wife Alice Guérin, whom he married in 1886. A woman of great beauty, Alice was the embodiment of Helleu’s lifelong penchant for depicting elegant women. Alice Helleu had striking, long auburn hair, whose abundant tresses she would pin up on occasion. An elegant woman of reserved manners, she was always depicted by her husband dressed in stylish clothes, often wearing hats from the finest Parisian milliners.
This a particularly fine example of Helleu’s practice of producing large-scale portrait drawings of his wife, executed in red, black and white chalks; a technique particularly suited to depicting her lustrous red hair. Many of these intimate drawings depict Alice deep in thought, reading a book or asleep in a chair. A number of large, stylistically comparable 'trois crayons' drawings of a pensive Alice Helleu are today in private collections; these all have the appearance of finished works of art, rather than preparatory studies or sketches. As one recent scholar has written, ‘Many of Helleu’s best and most delightful productions are his portraits of his wife...These quick impressions, drawings or dry-points, are extraordinarily effective and have a much subtler appeal than the long series of commissioned portraits of fashionable ladies and celebrated beauties that helped bring him fame and fortune.’ Indeed, Alice Helleu came to epitomize the beautiful, elegant women painted by the artist; a type that came to be characterized as ‘la femme Helleu’.