Paul César Helleu was born in Vannes, Brittany, France on December 17, 1859. While still in his teens, he moved to Paris to study at Lycée Chaptal and at the age of 16, was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, which was the beginning of his academic training in art. That same year, Helleu attended the Second Impressionist Exhibition in Paris, where he met John Singer Sargent, James A. M. Whistler, and Claude Monet. He was especially drawn to the way in which they painted outdoor scenes in such a bold manner.
On a trip to London in 1885, Helleu met once again with Whistler, who introduced him to James Tissot. It was this established artist who taught Helleu the unique medium of etching. ‘Drypoint etching’, the technique that he would later use, involves etching with a diamond point stylus directly on a copper plate. Helleu quickly mastered this technique, using the same panache with his stylus as he demonstrated with pastels. His prints were very well received.
His friendship with the Countess Greffulhe, a notorious Parisian socialite, enabled Helleu to successfully expand his career as a portrait artist to elegant women in the highest ranks of Paris society, for which he is now famous. His noteworthy subjects included the Duchess of Marlborough, the Marchesa Casati, Belle da Costa Greene, Madeleine Chéruit, and Helena Rubenstein.
In 1904, Helleu was awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French president, Émile Loubet, and became one of the most celebrated artists of the Edwardian era in both Paris and London. He was an honorary member in important beaux-arts societies, including the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, headed by Auguste Rodin.
On his second trip to the United States in 1912, Helleu was awarded the commission to design the ceiling decoration in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. He decided on a mural of a blue-green night sky covered by the starry signs of the zodiac that cross the Milky Way. Although the astrological design was widely admired, the ceiling was covered in the 1930s. More than sixty years later, in 1998, it was completely restored and millions of visitors and passengers at the station still marvel at Helleu’s ceiling mural today.
While planning a final exhibition, Helleu died in Paris in 1927 at the age of 67.