Paul Cesar Helleu

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Alice Helleu Sold

Black, red and white chalks on buff paper.
Signed Helleu at the lower right.
648 x 577 mm. (25 1/2 x 22 3/4 in.) [sheet]

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This large drawing in red, black and white chalks is a portrait of the artist’s favourite model, his wife Alice Guérin, whom he married in 1886, when she was sixteen years old. A woman of great beauty, Alice was the embodiment of Helleu’s lifelong penchant for depicting elegant women. She was praised as a ‘modele des épouses’ by Robert de Montesquiou, who dedicated his monograph on Helleu to her (‘à “la multiforme Alice dont la rose chevelure illumine de son reflet tant de miroirs de cuivre”.) In his memoirs, the English artist William Rothenstein recalled Alice as ‘a beautiful young girl with delicate features, slight and slim fingered, of whom [Helleu] made some of his best dry points and drawings.’

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. Alice also occasionally posed for other painters, including Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent; the latter painted a double portrait of Paul and Alice Helleu.

The present sheet is 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. (Alice’s striking russet hair was a favourite motif of the artist, who also preferred red-headed models for other works, including a number of his nude studies. As the art critic Félix Fénéon once noted of Helleu, ‘like M. [Albert] Besnard he delights in the prestige of red hair’.) Many of these intimate drawings depict Alice deep in thought, reading a book or asleep in a chair; she is also occasionally shown with one of her young children.

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’.

Paul César HELLEU

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Alice Helleu

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