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Society portraitists of the first order

Central Park benches. 9:30 PM. Photo: JH.
August 10, 2009. Hot sunny weekend in New York. The rumor going around is that Sarah Palin, the now ex-governor of Alaska, has been looking at real estate in the Hamptons and is considering three different properties in Hampton Bays.

The presumed projection is that Ms. Palin is going to write a multi-million dollar best seller, then have a talk radio show and then will rally the troops and run against Obama in 2012.

Supposedly she resigned her office because she found out she could make a lot of money and great political strides in the aforementioned way. If so, she will be the first governor of a state in the history of the Republic to leave office before it was over so that she could make a bundle and prepare for the Presidency. Will she be setting a precedent, if not a president?

The young, upcoming portraitist Paul Helleu. Paris, 1880s.
On today’s Diary, we’re featuring another one of those wonderful obituaries from the Daily Telegraph of London. This one is of a woman named Paulette Howard-Johnston who died at 104 last week. Madame Howard-Johnston was the daughter of the society portraitist Paul-Cesar Helleu whose career was at its zenith at the end of the 19th century.

In the late 19th and early 20th century society portraitists of the first order were celebrated for their talent and their work. They had a certain kind of power among the rich and the celebrated since the eye and the brushes had the destiny of the ages in them. The camera had yet to take over. They were artists who could make a personal difference in a subject’s life.

Many of the painters’ subjects became their friends and vice versa. Helleu, who lived in Paris, was as prominent as many of his subjects. He was among the popular artists who pre-dated the fashion photographer. His female images were the equivalent of photographed fashion models today in terms of their influence on the mass audience. Americans had a similar portraitist/ illustrator in that same era, Charles Dana Gibson.

Helleu made a good living and lived among society, enhancing his access to business. One of his most famous subjects was Consuelo Vanderbilt whom he sketched when she was in her late 20s and married to the Duke of Marlborough. One of the most famous women in America and Europe at the time, the duchess was a great beauty as well as a great heiress. He marketed his portrait of her and sold more than 2500 prints at 100 francs a piece.
Watercolor of the young Helleu by John Singer Sargent.
His business allowed him to live in the luxurious style of his age which was known as La Belle Epoque. He kept a yacht in Deauville which he used frequently and to which he invited many of his subjects to sketch them there. He and his wife were part of the social circle that has been immortalized in Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Helleu himself was the inspiration for one of the characters -- Elstir. The Helleus also socialized with many of the popular cultural figures of the time, as well as many of the prominent painters like Monet, Boldini, Manet.

One of the most famous of the society portraitists, John Singer Sargent, was a close friend. The two met when Helleu was eighteen (Sargent was twenty-two). Sargent was already working and Helleu was impatiently thinking of quitting. Sargent went to see his work and liked it so much he chose a picture to buy. Helleu was so flattered by the painter’s compliments that he wanted to give Sargent the picture. Sargent insisted on paying, handing him a thousand-franc note – his first sale.

Among his most famous and most popular works is the astrological ceiling decoration of Grand Central Station which he completed in 1912. One of the most celebrated artists of the Belle Epoque, when he came to New York his visit was reported in the New York Times. Paul Helleu died in 1927 in his 68th year.
Grand Central. Helleu completed the astrological design for the ceiling in 1912.
From the Telegraph, London, August 7th:

Paulette Howard-Johnston, who has died aged 104, was one of the last surviving connections with the belle époque era of Marcel Proust; her father was the artist Paul-César Helleu (1859-1927), who created elegant images of the many beautiful women in international society, including Consuelo Vanderbilt and Gladys Deacon (both Duchesses of Marlborough).

In order to finance a mondaine lifestyle – he gave glamorous parties while his children walked about barefoot – Paul Helleu brought a succession of beautiful women to his yacht, and made drypoint prints of them. These he sold (there were 2,500 Consuelo Vanderbilts). Though he normally sketched women, he left a memorable image of Proust on his deathbed, and of the poet and aesthete Robert de Montesquiou, who wrote an elegiac biography of Helleu. Paulette's mother was Alice Guerin, who came to be painted in 1884 at the age of 14, as a result of which Helleu fell in love with her. They married on July 28 1886, when she was just 16.

Paulette Howard-Johnston.
The character of Elstir in Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu was largely based on Helleu, and the author frequently visited the Helleus at their apartment in the rue Émile-Menier, or on their yacht at Deauville. Whereas the novelist was shy and tended to remain silent when in large groups, he was loquacious when at ease in small company.

Paulette remembered an evening in 1918 or 1919 when Proust brought her mother flowers. She had been allowed to stay up late, and at around 11pm a chauffeur arrived with a bouquet of flowers so enormous that he was invisible behind it. He asked the Helleus if M Proust, who was waiting downstairs, could come up and visit them.

A few moments later Proust appeared, wearing a heavy overcoat despite the heat of a Paris summer night. Paulette observed the darkness of his hair, in contrast to the pallor of his face, and how he greeted her father with the words: "Bonjour, Monsieur Elstir." But in later life, she was disdainful about him: "Oh, Proust! We thought nothing of him. He was a little man sitting in the corner."

Paulette Helleu was born in August 1904, and was a childhood friend of Diana Mitford, later Lady Mosley, who recalled: "Unlike her father, she was very critical and frank; she thought my clothes awful, which they were, particularly compared with hers, and she contradicted everything I chose to say. Nevertheless I was very fond of her; her attitude towards me was no more unflattering than my sisters', and I was perfectly accustomed to snubs."
Alice Guerin. Helleu was commissioned to paint her in 1884. He fell in love with his subject and they married two years later. Alice, the new mother with her babe, Paulette.
John Singer Sargent's watercolor of Paul Helleu painting his wife Alice.
Sargent charcoal of his friend.
Life in the Helleu household was far from relaxed. Paulette adored her mother, but enjoyed no intimacy with her father; he did, however, teach her to paint, and she was to become fiercely protective of his artistic reputation. He insisted that it was more important for a girl to be beautiful than to pass exams, but Paulette nevertheless read well and learnt English by the age of six; by the age of 14 she was more or less running the family home.

Paul had a terrible temper, and his daughter was terrified of him. He once threw a leg of mutton out of the window because it was overcooked; and when he caught the family nanny playing the piano on board his yacht (on which the family spent half the year), he ordered that it be thrown overboard.
Edgar Degas and Helleu in Dieppe in the early 1880s. Claude Monet (in the top hat) on his wedding day with Helleu (blurred out), Mrs. Helleu (seated) and JS Sargent, seated left, 1889.
Boldini, Sem, Helleu and some friend "sur la plage a Trouville." circa 1890.
Marcel Proust. Robert de Montesquiou.
Paulette's first grown-up lunch was attended by the politician, writer and wit Count Boni de Castellane. In 1924 she accompanied her father on a visit to Claude Monet at Giverny, in the company of the painter and art historian Etienne Moreau-Nelaton, who was writing a book about Edouard Manet. The young Paulette was fascinated by Monet, noting how small he was; his thick neck; his long and completely white beard. She found him simple and straightforward, with an air of rusticity which disappeared the moment he spoke.

Monet advised Paulette always to paint naturally "sur le motif" and to copy what she saw. He told her: "You paint like a bird sings." Allowed to explore the house, in his bedroom she counted four Manets and 11 Cézannes.

She met the artist Giovanni Boldini, and was amazed that he could create such delicate images with such fat fingers. He used to sing to her, and she was aware of his lasciviousness, and of his gaffes. He once asked a young lady at a lunch: "Who is that old pinguoin over there?" – to be told that it was her husband.
Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlborough, circa 1907. Madame de Fromenthal.
James McNeill Whistler, 1897. Edmond de Goncourt, the great French publisher.
Belle da Costa Greene, 1913. Greene was the curator for JP Morgan and wielded enormous power in the art world. Anna de Noailles.
Robert de Montesquiou was also in evidence. Paulette recalled that he had bad teeth, which he never showed, spoke in a high-pitched voice like a peahen, tended to wear grey and adored her mother.

Paulette decided not to marry in her mother's lifetime. She enjoyed a full social life, invariably dressed by Balenciaga, and turned down numerous proposals of marriage. She was a fine horsewoman.

In 1955 she became the third wife of Rear-Admiral Clarence Dinsmore "Johnny" Howard-Johnston, CB, DSO, DSC, who had recently served as Chief of Staff to Flag Officer, Central Europe. He was one of the Royal Navy's foremost exponents of anti-submarine warfare and until his death in 1996 maintained old-fashioned good manners and style.
The young horsewoman, Paulette Helleu.
Eugene Boudin painting near the jetees of Deauville, 1894. The Helleu yacht, Etoile, 1900.
Mme. Alice Helleu, Madame Georges Hugo, Albert Flament, Madame X (Madame Gautreau), and Helleu aboard the Etoile,1903.
Giovanni Boldini, Paul Helleu, and Thomas Gibson Bowles, the founder of Vanity Fair.
They lived partly in Paris, and for a time in Dolphin Square in London. They then settled in a villa Paulette designed near Biarritz, where she loved to play golf. The admiral himself designed a superb water garden on a plot of land nearby, later presented by Paulette to the municipality of Biarritz. In later life Paulette Howard-Johnston relied heavily on her friendship with the designer Karl Lagerfeld, with whom she was in constant touch.

Having devoted much of her life to promoting her father's work – and aware that she was almost certainly the last survivor from that world – in 2001 she established the Association des Amis de Paul-César Helleu to continue this mission and complete the catalogue raisonné of her father's pictures.

Paulette Howard-Johnston, who died on June 12, was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d' honneur and an Officier des Arts et des Lettres.
Helleu in his salon at 45, rue Emile Menier, in Paris, 1890. Charlie Chaplin with Helleu, circa 1920.
John Singer Sargent, self-portrait in his late 20s, mid 1880s. Marcel Proust on his deathbed, by Helleu, November 19, 1922.
Paul-Cesar Helleu in New York in 1922. To his left is a sketch of Consuelo Vanderbilt. Paulette Helleu Howard-Johnston late in her long life.

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