My Daily Art Display today is a tale of two artists who were very close friends. One is the great American Impressionist John Singer Sargent, the other is the French painter Paul César Helleu. Today’s work of art is a picture by the American artist Sargent of the French painter Paul César Helleu and his wife Alice Guérin.
John Singer Sargent was to become a leading portrait painter of his era. His family were extremely wealthy, his father, Fitz William, being an eye surgeon in Philadelphia. Sadly Sargent’s mother, Mary (née Singer) suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her daughter and to aid her recovery her husband decided that his wife and their family should go to Europe to allow Mary to convalesce.
Whilst in Europe, they travelled extensively. John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 whilst his parents lived in Florence and his sister Mary was born there a year later. After much discussion and to please his wife John’s father reluctantly relinquished his post at the Philadelphia hospital and remained in Italy were they led an unassuming lifestyle relying on a small inheritance and what savings they had managed to accrue.
John Singer Sargent proved to be a rebellious child who would not take to formal schooling and so was taught by his parents. His mother was a good amateur artist and she soon got John interested in that subject. His parents must have provided him with a good education as by his late teens he was fluent in French, Italian and German and accomplished in art, music and literature. No doubt the extensive travelling of European countries by the family improved his education.
In 1876, at the age of eighteen, Sargent passed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Here he studied anatomy and perspective and spent time in the Paris museums copying the works of art of the masters. It was whilst studying at the Art Academy that he met and became close friends with a young French artist, four years his junior, Paul César Helleu. Whereas Sargent was having success with the sale of his paintings and was having no trouble in securing commissions, Helleu was becoming very despondent and disheartened, finding sales of his works difficult to come by and he was struggling to make needs meet. Sargent, on hearing that Helleu was at the point of giving up his career as an artist, visited his friend on the pretext of looking at the young Frenchman’s work. He congratulated his friend on the standard of his work and asked to buy one. Helleu was delighted but told Sargent he must have the painting of his choice as a gift as it was not right to charge his friend. Sargent replied to this offer saying:
“I shall gladly accept, Helleu, but not as a gift. I sell my own pictures, and I know what they cost me by the time they are out of my hand. I should never enjoy this pastel if I hadn’t paid you a fair and honest price for it.”
He gave his friend a thousand-franc note for the painting. Can you imagine how Helleu felt on receiving such a large sum of money for one of his paintings ?
In 1884 Sargent painted the portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, entitled Madame X, wearing a very risqué off the shoulder gown. It was also shockingly low-cut. Her mother asked him to withdraw the painting but he refused. Although, now it is acclaimed as his best work of art, it scandalised Paris society and he was widely criticised in Paris art circles for being improper. Sargent found the criticism unjustified and at the age of 28 he left Paris disillusioned by the incident and the fall off of sales of his paintings and moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life England. He died there in 1925, aged 71.
My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife which he completed in 1889 and is in the Brooklyn Museum, New York. It is difficult to put a name on Sargent’s genre of painting. He was a prolific painter, painting over 2000 watercolours. He was a very successful portraitist but labelled portraiture as “a pimp’s profession” and in 1907 he announced that he would paint “no more mugs” and with a few exceptions kept to his word. He loved to paint landscape watercolours. Today’s painting of his is very much in the characteristic style of Impressionism.