César-Paul Helleu
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Two Studies of a Girl's Head, ca. 1896-97
Red, black, and white chalks on fine-textured white paper
51.7 x 37.5 cm
WA 1935.123

Paul Helleu used drawing to explore his subjects, often family members, rather than to plot out a particular composition. Helleu is perhaps best known to American audiences as the subject of an 1899 portrait by John Singer Sargent, which portrays the Helleu painting beside his wife, Alice Guérin, as they sit on the grassy banks of a body of water.

With a particular fascination for the sophisticated women of the belle époque, Helleu quickly established his reputation in Paris as a society portraitist. Helleu achieved his greatest fame in his graceful renderings of society women in the difficult medium of drypoint—a printing process in which the artist uses a sharp point to scratch an image onto the surface of a copper plate. Thin, softly textured lines characterize Helleu’s drypoints. Many of his works in drypoint and other media show meticulously articulated details in the rendering of the sitters’ hats, hairstyles, garments, and make-up, as seen in Two Studies.

Helleu’s growing popularity for his portraits of women, further enhanced by the warm reception of his pastels in the Salons of 1885 and 1886, brought the artist an increasing number of portrait commissions. Through such commissions, Helleu not only met his wife, Alice, but also Comte Robert de Montesquiou, who became one of his major patrons and supporters as well as Helleu’s biographer.

In addition to his many renderings of high-society women, Helleu frequently portrayed his wife as well his daughter, Ellen, the subject of the Ashmolean portrait. Two Studies of a Girl’s Head shows Ellen around the age of ten. Since Ellen was born in 1887, the date of this work is therefore approximated to be ca. 1896-7, around the time the drawing was sold. As a double portrait, with a three-quarter and profile view of Ellen, this drawing is most likely a study that was not intended to be finished work. In fact, a number at the top of Two Studies indicates that this page was probably removed from a sketchbook of numbered pages.

The composition of Two Studies vibrates in dynamism through the waving commotion of Ellen’s coiffure, the turning of her head from right to left, and the meticulous patterns of linear hatching along the surface of her face. Similarly to Helleu’s exacting details in his more finished works, especially the drypoints, this study of Ellen reveals Helleu’s interest in the elaborately swirling style of her curled dark hair, the delicate lines of its individual strands, and the bounce of the corkscrew curls hovering at Ellen’s shoulders.

Even in this chalk medium, Helleu seems to be thinking in drypoint. He portrays the three-dimensionality of her face in thin black hatch lines, rather than smearing the chalk into shadow with his finger. The surface of the page, in fact, shows a strongly built up line, in layers of chalk marks. This linear technique in the medium of chalk strongly suggests that this work is not only a study of Ellen, but also an exploration of the linear drawing techniques Helleu would employ in his drypoints.

Adina Loeb

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