Close to Marcel Proust (1871-1922), whose centenary of his death is being commemorated this year, Paul Helleu (1859-1927) was the privileged painter of the elite during the Belle Époque. A hanging at the Musée d'Orsay to see until January 1, 2023.
Paul Helleu is above all the “painter of women”. He loved and portrayed them with passion throughout his life, but none as much as his wife Alice, whom he drew tirelessly from their first meeting. Very close to the Impressionists, he was particularly linked with Claude Monet whom he considered to be the greatest painter of his time. He was also a witness along with Gustave Caillebotte at Monet's marriage to his second wife Alice in 1892. This painter of elegance was one of the models from which Marcel Proust created the character of Elstir in "À la looking for lost time".
For about ten years, to be able to live, Paul Helleu practiced painting on ceramics. Edgar Degas would have said of him: "He is a steam Watteau". He often finds him in the company of Jean-Louis Forain and Giovanni Boldini. But it is John Singer Sargent who saved him from misery, encouraged him and pushed him into society. This is how his first exhibition of pastels in 1888 was a real triumph.
Becoming the idol of the public, Paul Helleu makes many stays in England, buys a yacht "l'Étoile", anchored in Portsmouth and often visits Claude Monet in Giverny, dressed as a yachtsman. He will offer the latter a painting by Paul Cézanne: "Geraniums and apples".
In 1902, the publisher Russell commissioned an album of portraits of the twenty most beautiful women in New York, and it is also to Paul Helleu that we owe the decor representing the celestial vault on the ceiling of Grand Central Station.
Marcel Proust wrote in "The Bible of Amiens": "As interiors of cathedrals, I only know those, so beautiful, of Paul Helleu".
Often dissatisfied with his paintings, which he sometimes tore up or threw into the fire, Paul Helleu gradually sank into an indifference he did not deserve, although he was appreciated by critics such as Gustave Geoffroy and Octave Mirbeau, or by colleagues. little-known for their kindness, such as Claude Monet or Edgar Degas.
Esplanade Valéry Giscard d'Estaing
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