The French painter and graphic artist Paul César Helleu was born in Vannes (Bretagne) on December 17, 1859. In 1876 he went to Paris and studied at the École des Beaux Arts under Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904). During the second Impressionist exhibit at Paul Durand-Ruel’s (1831 – 1922), Helleu met the artists James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903), John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) and Claude Monet (1840 – 1926). From this point on, they were friends.
In order to make his living, the painter studied ceramics with Joseph-Théodore Deck (1823 – 91). Subsequently, he painted dishes for Deck. Later, Paul César Helleu cultivated a long friendship with Giovanni Boldini (1842 – 1931). In 1879 he exhibited his pastels, mostly pictures of women. In particular Sargent was charmed by them.
In 1884 the artist received a commission from Madame Guérin for a pastel portrait of her 14-year-old daughter Alice (* 1874). Later, Alice became his most preferred model and muse. Paul César Helleu married her just two years later. Despite the pleas of Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917), Helleu declined to participate in the eighth Impressionist exhibition although his works were admired in numerous exhibits.
The artist cultivated a life-long friendship with the collector Robert de Montesquiou (1855 – 1921). With his help, Helleu was admitted into Parisian society and became a sought-after portraitist. An exhibit of Helleu’s works took place in London in 1895. Edmond Goncourt (1822 – 96) wrote the forward to the catalog. In addition, his paintings could be seen in Versailles in 1897 and his marine paintings in the Champ de Mars exhibit. Robert de Montesquiou introduced Paul César Helleu to the writer Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922). A long friendship developed between them, and after Proust’s death, the artist engraved a portrait on his death bed. Within only a few years, he produced around 1500 portraits of elegant ladies and children. Helleu had particularly good success in London as well as in Paris and New York. For a long time, he was the only exhibitor with the London "Painter-Etchers" and probably their first non-resident member. In 1912, he received a commission to paint the ceiling of the main hall of New York’s Grand Central Station.
Paul César Helleu died in Paris on March 23, 1927.