Paul César Helleu
1859-1927 | French
La femme aux fleurs (Portrait de Mathilde See)
(Flower Woman (Portrait of Mathilde See))
Signed "Helleu" (lower left)
Pastel on linen
Paul César Helleu is regarded among the most sought-after society portraitists of his era, and his Belle Époque works rival those of his contemporaries John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini. He is best remembered for capturing the era's most beautiful socialites, including Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough, the Comtesse de Loriol Chandieu and the Comtesse Mathieu de Noailles, among others. This work, however, stands out in that it captures the charming likeness of one of his art world cohorts, Mathilde See, a Parisian-born decorator and painter of floral still lifes. She is the essence of the modern woman, captured in her fashionable dress as she strolls along the flower-lined streets of Paris.
Commanding in size, Portrait de Mathilde See fully displays Helleu's mastery over the medium of pastel. The muted palette of greys and blues is typical of the artist, bringing a harmony and cohesiveness to the composition. Furthermore, Helleu cleverly alludes to See's own artistic output with a backdrop of vibrant floral blooms, enlivening the canvas and complementing the greens and blues of the peacock feather adorning her hat.
The portrait is all the more significant thanks to its provenance. It was previously in the collection of A. Alfred Taubman, one of America's most successful entrepreneurs and one-time owner of Sotheby's. Considering Taubman encountered some of the most noteworthy and beautiful works of art ever made through his auction house, the fact that he chose this portrait by Helleu to grace his collection is a testament to its import.
Born in Brittany in 1859, Helleu moved to Paris in 1876 in order to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. Like so many other artists of his generation, he was trained there under the Academic master Jean-Léon Gérôme. That same year, he also attended the Second Impressionist Exhibition, where he met John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet, each of whom would have a significant influence on his art. Sargent in particular remained a lifelong friend, and Helleu and his family appear in many of Sargent's portraits in the decades to follow.
Helleu quickly became a portraitist of renown, capturing many of the great socialites of the age. Later in his career, he also explored the art of the landscape, finding inspiration in the parks of Versailles and the port of Deauville. In 1904, he was awarded the Légion d'honneur and was made an honorary member of important beaux-arts societies. Today, his works can be found in the collections of the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) and the Brooklyn Museum, among others.
This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist currently being prepared by the Association des amis de Paul César Helleu as no. PA-1495.
Linen: 49 1/4" high x 35 1/2" wide
Frame: 61 3/8" high x 48 1/4" wide
Detroit Institute of Arts, June 30, 1989 - June 30, 1991
Sotheby's, New York, May 23, 1989, lot 116
Collection of A. Alfred Taubman