This enchanting study of a mother and child is a fine example of the draftsmanship of one of the busiest and most fashionable portraitists working in Paris and abroad during the Belle Époque. Paul-César Helleu (1859–1927) was much admired in his time for his paintings, drawings, and prints of chic and—to him, even more important—beautiful women, including prominent members of the French and European aristocracy, American high society, and many Parisiennes of lesser social standing. In both style and vision, his works had much in common with those of his friends Giovanni Boldini, John Singer Sargent, James Jacques Joseph Tissot, and James McNeill Whistler, focusing as much on the sitters' modish dresses, hats, and hairstyles as on their physical likeness.
Helleu's preferred medium for his drawings was the combination of red, black, and white chalks, known as trois-crayons (literally, three chalks), which was the hallmark of the artist he admired the most: Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). But in contrast to Watteau's finely detailed studies that evoke the spirit of the early 18th century, Helleu's are executed in a broader, more sweeping style that reflects the taste of his own time, more than 150 years later. Working with extraordinary facility and speed, Helleu captured his subjects with a deft combination of rapid contours, bold highlights, and a few smaller touches that pick out the features and expressive details. These "instantanées" or snapshots, as they came to be known, give a lively glimpse of the pursuits and pastimes of contemporary young women, from playing musical instruments, attending the theater, or visiting museums, to simply reading books or languidly lounging at home.
Helleu's favorite model was his own wife, Alice Guérin (b. 1870), whom he met in 1884 when she sat for her portrait at the age of 14. The two fell deeply in love and were married when she was just 16 years old. Thereafter, Helleu made innumerable paintings, drawings, sketches, etchings, and drypoints of her, inspired by the grace and elegance of her every move. Here, he shows her in a touching moment of maternal communion with their infant daughter Paulette, born in August 1904. Only the crown of the baby's head and her right arm and hand are visible, but the physical and psychological connection between the two figures is evoked through the downward tilt of Alice's head as she studies her child's face and the sweet innocence of Paulette's gesture as she reaches up to clutch the end of her mother's necktie. Paulette lived an extraordinarily long life, dying in 2009 at the age of 104.
The purchase of this charming drawing was funded by Evelyn Stefansson Nef, a generous and enthusiastic friend and donor to the National Gallery who died in December 2009. Over the previous 12 years she helped the Gallery add more than 30 prints and drawings to its collections, including works by some of Helleu's contemporaries: Hermann-Paul, Camille Pissarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Jacques Villon. Through her funding of these acquisitions, Mrs. Nef played an invaluable invaluable role in broadening the Gallery's representation of the many different aspects of art in Paris around 1900, for which we are all enormously grateful.
lower left in black chalk: Helleu
(Paul Prouté, Paris) ; purchased 2009 by NGA.
- Vernet to Villon: Nineteenth-Century French Master Drawings from the National Gallery of Art. Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma. Norman, OK, 2012, no. 29.
- Prouté Catalogue Barocci, Paris (2009): no. 34.
- Grasselli, Margaret Morgan. "Paul-César Helleu, Madame Helleu Cradling Paulette in Her Arms.' NGA Bulletin, Spring 2010: 21.