Helleu! have you seen the “starry, starry night?”

alice helleuPaul César Helleu was born in Vannes, Brittany, France on 17 December 1859. According to Wikipedia, he was a French oil painter, pastel artist, dry-point etcher and designer, best known for his numerous portraits of beautiful society women of the Belle Époque era. Helleu attended the Second Impressionist Exhibition in 1876, the same year he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, at the tender age of 16;  and made his first acquaintances with John Singer Sargent, James Whistler, and Claude Monet.

Helleu was commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman named Alice Guérin in 1884. (see above). They fell in love, and married two years later, on 28 July 1886. Throughout their lives together, she was his favourite model.  In 1885 , Helleu visited Whistler in London, who introduced him to French-born society painter James Jacques Tissot. Tissot was using dry-point etching with a diamond point stylus directly onto copper plate. Helleu quickly became a virtuoso of this technique and produced more than 2,000 dry-point prints.

In 1904, Helleu was awarded the Légion d’honneur and became one of the most celebrated artists of the Edwardian era in both Paris and London. He was an honorary member in important beaux-arts societies, including the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, headed by Auguste Rodin, and the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.

  • Well connected, Helleu went on to meet Marcel Proust, who also became a friend. Proust created a literary picture of Helleu in his novel Remembrance of Things Past as the painter ‘Elstir’.
  • He took up sailing, owning four yachts over his life. Ships, harbor views, life at port in Deauville and women in their fashionable seaside attire, became subjects for many vivid and spirited works. (ooh-la-la!).
  • On his second trip to the USA in 1912, Helleu was awarded the commission to design the ceiling decoration in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. He decided on a mural of a blue-green night sky covered by the starry signs of the zodiac that cross the Milky Way. (starry, starry night).
  • Although the astrological design was widely admired, the ceiling was covered in the 1930s. (oh no!)
  • More than sixty years later, in 1998, it was completely restored and millions of visitors and passengers at the station still marvel at Helleu’s ceiling mural today. (hooray!)
  • He made his last trip to New York City in 1920 for an exhibition of his work, but he realized that the Belle Époque era was over. He felt out of touch, and shortly after his return to France, he destroyed nearly all of his copper plates, retiring to family life.
  • While planning for a new exhibition with Jean-Louis Forain, he died of peritonitis following surgery in Paris, on 23 March 1927 at the age 67.
  • Among many of Helleu’s friends was Coco Chanel, who picked beige as her signature colour upon his advice, because it resembled the color of the sand on the beach of Biarritz in the early morning.
  • Both his son Jean Helleu and his grandson Jacques Helleu became artistic directors for Parfums Chanel (refer to my Chanel post).

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