Paul-César Helleu had a refined style and excelled in painting boat and seaside scenes – perfect subjects for an artist who loved light. His works often showcase a majestic female figure, often his wife and muse, with whom he was passionately in love. In this dreamy portrait Madame Helleu is shown from beneath, from an angle that lends her a certain grandeur, as if her silhouette were dominating the heavens.
The brushwork is rich and intense, with creamy layers of paint creating a subtle yet vibrant two-tone effect. The milky white of the clouds and the lady’s clothes – she is wearing a stylish dress designed by Madeleine Chéruit, a couturière then much in vogue – are brought to life with golden tints, and stand out against the soft blue ground with crystal sharpness. Helleu excelled in seizing the moment when fleeting gusts of wind brush against his models, and appear to bear them away into endless reverie. Here he pays homage to the woman he adored while, at the same time, lulling us into the midst of an ethereal symphony, where the air, sky and light dance together. This Impressionistic portrait breathes and inspires. It is painting at its purest.
Pascale Pavageau is Head of 19th Century Paintings & Drawings at Sotheby’s France.
Old Master & 19th Century Paintings & Drawings
Paris, 26 June