French, 1859–1927

Paul Cesar Helleu

Helleu was a close and life-long friend of Sargent. According to Stanley Olson, John Singer Sargent bought a pastel from Helleu. “They were constant companions, going everywhere together, having their meals together, seeing each other every day. . .” In a letter to his daughter, Paulette, in December 1922 Helleu wrote, “J’ai voulu faire photographier Sargent qui à été pour moi, tout au long de ma vie, plus qu’un père.”

During the summer of 1889, Sargent had a number of guests to stay at his house at Fladbury near Pershore, including Vernon Lee, Ansttruther Thomson, Flora Priestly, and Paul and Alice Helleu. Helleu’s intimate portrait of his wife at Fladbury was painted in that summer when both he and especially Sargent, were experimenting in Impressionism. Sargent completed among others, Two Girls with Parasols at Fladbury, Fishing, Two Girls in a Punt, A Boating Party, and probably the best know of the Fladbury pictures, Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife (now in the Brooklyn Museum, New York).

In Patricia Hill’s book John Singer Sargent (New York, 1987), William H. Gerdts writes in his essay entitled "The Arch Apostle of the Dab-and-spot School, John Singer Sargent as an Impressionist", p. 131: “Finally, Paul Helleu Sketching must be seen as a further step in Sargent’s development of the theme of out-door- painting. Helleu’s canvas is turned away from the spectator, just as it had been in Dennis Bunker Painting. But whereas Bunker was shown ruminating, away from his easel, Helleu is busily at work, and presumably confidently so. The subject he paints is of no concern nor does the spectator have a view of the scene which might be serving Helleu for his subject. What is certain is that it is an outdoor view, immediately recorded. Moreover, Helleu, like Sargent, was first and foremost a portrait painter, and by definition a portraitist of studio conceptions. Thus, Sargent presents Helleu as a convert to the new method, exploring new thematic interests. And it must be noted that Helleu is depicted doing exactly what Sargent was doing in his picture – painting out-of-doors. Helleu therefore becomes, in a sense, a surrogate Sargent himself, both men established artists in one tradition, sailing off into what was for them relatively uncharted waters."

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