Lines and Colors art blog

Paul Cesar Helleu, pastel society portraits, chalk, drypoint etching
Though he painted landscapes and still life, and worked in oil, French artist Paul-César Helleu was known primarily for his beautiful portraits of turn of the century society women, done primarily in pastel, chalk and drypoint etching.

Helleu entered the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts at an early age, studying in the academic tradition under Jean-Léon Gérôme. He also came into contact artists like Monet, Whistler, and in particular, John Singer Sargent, with whom he would have a life-long friendship.

He also befriended and learned from society painter Giovanni Boldini, but it was an encounter with James Jacques Tissot, who he met through Whistler, that sparked his enthusiasm for drypoint etching. Helleu went on to create numerous drypoint prints (images above, bottom three). These are not as well represented in current online collections of his work as his pastels and chalk drawings, but there is a nice selection of them on the site of the Brooklyn Museum.

I particularly enjoy the way Helleu combines linear elements and hatching-like textures with more painterly passages in his pastels, and the loose freedom of much of the line work in his chalk drawings.

Among his other accomplishments, Helleu designed the Zodiac ceiling mural in New York’s Grand Central Station.

There is a website devoted to the artist: Les Amis de Pau-César Helleu, established by his daughter.


6 responses to “Paul-César Helleu”

  1. I’ve heard of Helleu, but never realized until your blogpost the Boldini connection. It’s obvious when you look at some of the work posted here. Very interesting!

  2. Richard Last Avatar
    Richard Last

    Beautiful delicacy of line and contour. The pastel/chalks are amazing – I can see Sargent in those. Not so taken with the oil sketches.

    The photos of Hellue show a very dapper and refined gentleman.

  3. Ah, I was going to say he is the one to blame for incorrect, partially-reversed celestial sphere of the Grand Central ceiling – until I read in Wiki that most likely it is the fault of erroneous reading of instructions by the astronomer Jacoby.

    As an artist, I think, Helleu walked thin line between art and kitsch…too “smooth”, for my taste.

  4. Yes, a little too precious for me, in a way that Sargent, Sorolla and Zorn were not when painting or drawing the young beauties of their day.

    1. Very stylized I agree, and aimed at a specific audience, but I really like his handling of pastel and chalk.

  5. I think they’re beautifully done but I can see how they might look overly polished. They remind me of fashion illustrations of the day. In that context they work really well.