Step Closer 

Paul César Helleu 
Madame Helleu at Fladbury with John Singer Sargent 
Oil on canvas 
54 x 73 cm (21 ¼ x 28 ¾ in) 
 Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife  
John Singer Sargent -- American painter  
The Brooklyn Museum, NY 
Oil on canvas 
26 1/8 x 32 1/8 in. 
Museum Collection Fund 
Jpg: Jim's Fine Art Collection  

The painting was given very little notice in the reviews when it was exhibited, however I find it one of my favorites of John's work and one of his truest Impressionistic paintings.  

Paul César Helleu (French, 1859-1927) met Alice Louise Guérin in Paris in 1884 and they married two years later. Alice became Paul's favorite model. Over the years he painted her in oils, pastels, and lithographs. When they visited Sargent she was nineteen years old and he thirty.  

Paul was one of Sargent's closest friends.  They had met in Paris in 1878 when Paul was 18 years old and Sargent 22. Sargent was becoming known to the public and getting commissions for work. Helleu on the other hand at very low ebb in his life.  The story goes that  Paul Helleu was terribly despondent, financially strapped with hardly any money to even eat. He was at the edge of the precipice of having to leave his studies in art for lack of funds. He had not sold anything and was deeply discouraged.  
Sargent, having heard this, went and visited Helleu at his gallery and without mentioning Paul's financial straights, picked out one of his paintings, and praised its merits. Paul was so flattered the successful Sargent would think so kindly of his work that he offered to give it to him.  

<>Sargent responded, "I shall gladly accept, Helleu, but not as a gift. I sell my own pictures, and I know what they cost me by the time they are out of my hand. I should never enjoy this pastel if I hadn't paid you a fair and honest price for it." And he paid him a thousand-franc note. Paul had never even seen a thousand-franc note before (Charteris  p.45).

<>Helleu never forgot that and they remained fast and dear friends. In Sargent's own troubled moments, as when the loss of his father, it was Paul and his wife, among others, who visited and stayed a while in England. And it was the two of them along with other artists that went to  the Netherlands to in 1883 to study Frans Hals.    

Sargent would sometimes paint portraits for his closest friends, and he would present them as gifts. Many of these might be seen as "unfinished" but they weren't meant to be.  Another portrait was made for Paul as a gift (thumbnail) done sometime between 1885 and 1889.  

Today we think of John Singer Sargent, among other things, as one of the great American Impressionist artists. But this was not always the case. In fact, the poor response he got from his early impressionist work for critical review made him shy away from it for exhibition. He was, after all, hitting his stride with portraitures by the end of the 1880's and was considered one of the best. 

After the tepid response of Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife Sargent stopped submitting his impressionists work for critical exhibition. Today, this painting is considered one of Sargent's signature pieces and it's beauty and subtlety speaks for itself.  

In considering his life, it is so difficult to fully grasp the incredible range of this man's talent. Claude Monet was undoubtedly the greatest impressionist, but it is hard to see Monet painting Paul Helleu Sketching with the delicate touch of  a Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron . . . . 


the brevity of lines in a Study for El Jaleo; the delicate blending of color in an Egyptian Girl; the mastery of watercolors in a Villa di Marlia, Lucca: The Balustrade; and there are so many other examples of depth and breadth of this man's talent. In fact, it is safe to say that a Paul Klee, a Vincent van Gogh, a Paul Gauguin, a Mark Rothko, or any of them, didn't have nearly the range of talent that Sargent had. John Singer Sargent was the last of his kind. He was the last great generalist. 



John Singer Sargent, An Exhibition -- Whitney Museum, NY & The Art Institute of Chicago 1986-1987

Paul Klee (1879-1940), A Swiss-born painter and graphic artist -- primitive art, surrealism, cubism, and children's art all seem blended into his small-scale, delicate paintings, watercolors, and drawings.  

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Dutch postimpressionist painter whose work represents the archetype of expressionism  

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) French postimpressionist painter whose lush color, flat two-dimensional forms, and subject matter helped form the basis of modern art  

Mark Rothko,(1903-1970) American abstract artist who hit his form in the 40's and 50,s  (National Gallery of Art) 



Man with a Beard - Paul Helleu
Man with a Beard - Paul Helleu
(Double-sided Drawing: a. (Recto) Sketch of Man with a Beard - Paul Helleu ; b.(Verso) Woman in Profile)
John Singer Sargent -- American painter

Sketch of a Man (Paul Helleu)
John Singer Sargent -- American painter

Paul Helleu (watercolor)
c. 1882-1885

Paul Helleu Lying in a Field
c. 1889

Portrait of Paul Helleu
c. 1885-1889 

Created 1999