Tag Archives: Paul Cesar Helleu

John Singer Sargent: Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife

19 Apr

John Singer Sargent, Paul Helleu Sketching with His Wife, 1889

I discovered this gem of a painting two months ago but I decided to save it for April because plein air paintings with such lush greenness just scream April and springtime to me. The man with a straw hat, long sharp nose and a beard is the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul César Helleu. His canvas sits in the grass, framed by noisy blades of grass. The long thin fingers of his right hand are not so dissimilar to the brushes he is holding in his left arm, and if you look at it closely, you will see that the brush is nothing more than a stroke of paint, confident and carefree. Whatever he is painting, and it must be the nature that is in front of him, is it for sure keeping him completely absorbed. Behind him, in the shadow of this great artist, is a seemingly disinterested auburn haired woman with greyish complexion; that is Helleu’s wife Alice Guérin.

The couple met in 1884 when Helleu was commissioned to paint a portrait of this graceful young lady with long red hair. They quickly fell in love and married two years later, on 28 July 1886 when she was sixteen years old and he was twenty-six. She was his favourite model, but in this painting painted by Helleu’s life-long friend John Singer Sargent, she is sitting wistfully in the grass behind him; lost in daydreams, listening to birds or just following a butterfly in its flight with her eyes. He seems so stern and so absorbed in his work, I wonder: was she bored just sitting there useless, like a captive bird, dressed in an almost matching grey jacket to that of her beloved husband? Or did she enjoy being his passive companion? Or perhaps he just seems serious, but we don’t see the jokes he might have cracked or smiles he might have sent to her in times of  little painting breaks. One thing I do know for sure: the grass in this painting is something out of this world! In so many different shades of green, from the proper grass green to being and brown tones… it is a joy to soak my eyes in this greenness! Sensuality of nature comes through in these colours. Every blade of grass has a unique life of its own. This isn’t some neat, tamed lawn, no, this is a sweetly wild grass that grows on its own accord, without man’s laws.

Bellow you can see a similar painting that John Singer Sargent painted four years before the Helleu one, and in this painting it’s the famous Impressionist Claude Monet who is shown painting plein air on the edge of the wood. Sargent sort of strikes me as a voyeur of a sort… I know that they knew they were being painted but still, it seems that Sargent was quick to capture them in their pursuit.

John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Wood, 1885