Tondo of 85.5 cm diameter (107 cm framed)
Signed "Helleu" at the bottom left. It appears in the ‘catalogue raisonné’ under the reference HU3-1128.
Price on request
Provenance: Gaston Palewski
This tondo was executed by Helleu around 1895 in autumn leave colours. It was painted in close proximity to Monet at a time when he was about to revolutionise painting with the Water Lilies (Nymphéas). This painting reveals a little-known yet tremendously innovative aspect of Helleu’s work.
1. Paul Helleu
In 1913 Robert de Montesquiou wrote in his book devoted to the painter: "Helleu was born in Vannes in 1859, of a Breton father and a Parisian mother". He hardly knew his father, who died when he was three years old, and was brought up entirely by his mother, who sent him to continue his studies at the Lycée Chaptal in Paris in 1873.
His discovery of Edouard Manet's Chemin de Fer at the 1874 Salon is reported to be at the origin of his artistic vocation. He worked against his mother's wishes in the studio of the painter Gérôme, also frequented by the painters Giovanni Boldini, Jean-Louis Forain and Antonio de La Gandara. Helleu became friends with John Singer Sargent, with whom he shared a studio for some time, as well as with Claude Monet (1840 - 1926) and Jacques Blanche (1861 - 1942), who accompanied him on a trip to England during which he met the painters Whistler and James Tissot.
When his mother cut off his pension to divert him from painting, Helleu worked in the workshop of the ceramist Théodore Beck, where he decorated ornamental ceramic medallions with women’s faces to pay for his studies at the Paris School of Fine Arts.
In 1884, the Louis-Guérin household commissioned him to paint a portrait of their daughter Alice, aged 14, which was to appear in the Salon of 1885 . Helleu fell madly in love with his model and wished to marry her. Her parents agreed to the wedding subject to three conditions: that it should only take place when Alice turned 16 (!), that she should finish her studies and that the newlyweds should live with them for two years.
From 1886 onwards, a series of happy events and successes followed: his marriage, followed by the birth of his first daughter Ellen in 1887, the participation in the Pastelists' Salon and the first exhibition of his drypoints in New York in 1889. His friendship with Robert de Montesquiou, whom he met in 1887, opened him the doors of the Parisian aristocracy. In 1891 he painted a series of portraits of Montesquiou’s cousin, the Countess Greffulhe, before meeting Marcel Proust in 1895, also thanks to Montesquiou. Proust took much of his inspiration from Helleu for the character of the painter Elstir in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a character whose name is said to be a clever alchemy between the names of Helleu and Whistler.
Helleu by then was at the peak of his art and multiplied female portraits, alternating between drypoint, pastels, three-colour pencil drawings whose technique had been inspired by Watteau's, and oil paintings. Commissions for his women’s portraits came from the Parisian High Society as well as from England and the United States, allowing the painter to choose his models.
In parallel to this career as a portrait painter, Helleu produced two large series of paintings concomitantly to Claude Monet's own artistic researches. Since their meeting in 1876, Monet had become a great friend of Helleu (despite an age difference of almost twenty years), and Helleu was one of the two witnesses (the other being the painter Gustave Caillebotte) when Monet, having become a widower, remarried Alice Hoschedé in 1892.
Helleu’s first series was the Cathedrals series, which he began in 1892. While Monet worked in front of the Rouen Cathedral, scrutinising from a fixed point the play of light on the portal, hour after hour and day after day, Helleu was interested in the representation of the cathedrals’ interiors and in particular in the diffusion of light from the stained-glass panels. In 1894 he began outdoor paintings in the park of Versailles. In the description of our painting, we will see how this series can be related to Monet's Water Lilies.
Thanks to his success, Helleu became a real dandy and devoted himself to his passion for yachting. His taste in interior decoration had a lasting influence, since it was Helleu who came up with the idea of abandoning the dark decorations that were so popular at the end of the nine-tenth century for white painted walls, enlivened by the soft glow of golden wooden frames.
The First World War dealt a fatal blow to the world in which Helleu had been one of the most emblematic portraitists. His activity during and after the war was greatly reduced, while he was unable to reinvent his art to seduce a new public. Helleu died on March 23rd 1927 after having seen those who had counted most in his life pass away: Montesquiou in 1921, Proust in 1922, Sargent in 1925 and finally Monet in 1926.
2. Description of the artwork
Helleu represents in a rounded tondo format the fountain of the Petite Gerbe basin in the gardens of the Grand Trianon in Versailles.
While the shape of the painting evokes that of the basin, the fountain is slightly decentered towards the top of the composition, highlighting the shimmering waters in which the horse chestnut trees - whose leaves swirl around the fountain - are reflected.
At least two other compositions are related to our painting: a very large one (142 x 190.5 cm) acquired by the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and another square composition (125 x 125 cm) called "Les Eaux Mortes" (location unknown, plate XXXV of Montesquiou's book reproduced below).
These compositions were both exhibited at the Salon du Champ de Mars in 1897. The first presents a sunny, springtime version of this fountain, and could, by the repetition of the same motif under a different light, evoke Monnet's work on the portal of the Rouen Cathedral. The comparison with "Les Eaux Mortes" is instructive and allows us to understand the true subject of our painting.
This painting shows a much wider view of the basin, with the basin edge in front. The fountain adorned by three tritons is less important than in our painting and has been pushed up to the upper edge of the basin, reinforcing the place left to the depiction of the basin water, which thus becomes the real subject of the painting, as the title "Les Eaux Mortes" indicates.
This widening of the field is decisive because it further reinforces the affinity with the Water Lilies on which Monnet began working in 1895: same square format, the predominant place of water, very high horizon line. Light plays an essential role as it illuminates the falling leaves and allows the reflection of the fountain and the sky. With this outdoor painting Helleu fully demonstrates he belongs to the Impressionist movement, an affiliation that is too often forgotten when only retaining his seductive female portraits from his work.
Les "Eaux Mortes" are more elaborated than our painting (as far as the 1913 reproduction allows us to judge), which leads us to believe that our painting is in fact a study of the central motif of these "Eaux Mortes". This motif was then integrated into a larger decorative space in which it gives way to the true subject of the painting: the sky reflection in the basin water, in the midst of the recently fallen leaves.
The pictorial touch, which is very free in our painting, is particularly in line with Monet's approach, which consists of seeking the main subject of the painting in the pictorial matter itself. This painting illustrates this fascinating moment in the history of European art when the representation of beauty is overshadowed by the pictorial act and the delight of material and colour. This is the path that Monet will follow as he pursues his work on the Water Lilies for years, opening the door to abstraction for the next generation of painters.
"All the brocades of the Back Season, picturesquely described by a Sévigné woman, Helleu often painted them in his enchanted canvases. October there weeps golden tears over desolate Olympians; and there are older autumns, whose reflections linger on the groups of this basin, where yellowed foliage has parted, like the rosary beads of a musky abbot, the dead pearls of a favourite necklace ".
These lines by Robert de Montesquiou sum up the vision of his time upon Helleu’s painting of Versailles, a backward-looking image of a glorious past now in twilight.
The comparison with the Water Lilies makes us understand that Helleu was able to go beyond and transcend the representation through his painting (without his contemporaries being necessarily aware of it), an approach that Monet would take much further in the Water Lilies, opening a new chapter in the history of painting and the door to abstraction.
Main bibliographical references :
Robert de Montesquiou Paul Helleu Painter and Engraver Paris 1913
Under the direction of Frédérique de Watrigant Paul-César Helleu Paris 2014 (our painting is reproduced in page 43)
Delevery information :
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