Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife by John Singer Sargent

Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife by John Singer Sargent (1894)

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.

Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt

Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt (1886)

Today my painting for My Daily Art Display is a work of art by the American artist Mary Cassatt.   She was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, which is now part of Pittsburgh, in 1844 and was the fourth of seven children, two of whom died in infancy.  She came from a wealthy family.  Her father, Robert, was a wealthy stockbroker and land speculator and her mother, Katherine, came from a banking family.   She and her family moved from America to Europe when she was seven years of age, where they travelled from country to country before returning back to America.  This European “adventure” was looked upon, by the affluent, as an aid to a good education and offered an understanding of different cultures

Mary decided that a life as an artist was for her but her parents disapproved.  However she was, even at this young age, very headstrong and wasn’t to be discouraged and at the  age of fifteen studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  She became disillusioned with the Academy and the way budding female artists were treated and despite her father’s disapproval and his many objections, which she finally overcame, in 1866 she travelled to Paris, initially chaperoned by her mother and some family friends.  Whilst in Paris she met and was taught by Camille Pissarro, the great French Impressionist painter.  She was a great admirer of the works of Edgar Degas whom she met and became great friends with.  He was to have considerable influence on her life and her art work.  As time went on the Impressionist movement in Paris benefited greatly from Cassatt who helped them both financially and by facilitating them getting their works of art recognised and accepted in American museums and galleries.

Cassatt’s family never believed that their daughter would stay long in Paris and were surprised by her determination to succeed in the French capital.  Her sister Lydia, who Mary said was not just a sister but her best friend, joined her in France in 1874, so as to be company for her.   Three years later her parents moved to Paris.   Lydia Cassatt, as well as being very close to Mary, was also the model for many of Mary Cassatt’s most famous paintings.  Sadly after long bouts of illness Lydia died in 1882.  This had a devastating effect on Mary who for a time stopped painting. 

Mary Cassatt was an outspoken individual who was never backward in coming forward with her opinions.  Some say she was too outspoken.  However, being wealthy allowed her to be independent and she did not need to suffer fools.  Her independent attitude and her frankness, which on occasions was considered insulting, became more noticeable as she grew older.   She was highly critical of the modern artists such as Picasso and Matisse and even some of her Impressionist colleagues received her unbridled censure.  

Mary was a prolific and a well respected artist on both sides of the Atlantic and her works of art when they come up for sale now realise millions of dollars.  Like her friend and mentor Edgar Degas she suffered with failing eyesight and when she died in 1926, aged 82 she was blind.

Mary Cassatt’s place in the history of American art is unique, not only because she was one of the few woman artists of any nationality to succeed professionally in her time, but also because she was the only American artist to exhibit with the French Impressionists.

My Daily Art Display today is a painting completed in 1886 by Mary Cassatt entitled Child in a Straw Hat.  Mary Cassatt’s favourite subjects became children and women with children in ordinary scenes. Her paintings express a deep tenderness and her own love for children. But she never had children of her own.  Cassatt was fond of painting young girls in large elaborate hats and bonnets wearing frilly dresses.  However in this painting the girl wears a simple plain gray pinafore and her hat, albeit very large, is a simple straw one.  The child, with a furrowed brow, doesn’t look too pleased and has a sullen and slightly glum look on her face.  There is an air of impatience in her expression and maybe this is due to having to pose for the artist when she would rather have been out playing.

The Red Roofs by Camille Pissarro (1877)

The Red Roofs by Camille Pissaro (1877)

Camille Pissarro, the Impressionist painter of French descent, was born in 1830 on the island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies.  At the age of twelve he went to Europe where he attended a Paris boarding school.  During his time in Paris he studied at various academic institutions including the École des Beaux Arts and Académie Suisse and under a succession of masters such as Corot and Courbet.  In the 1860’s he, along with Monet, became involved in the Impressionist Movement and spent most of his time painting urban and rural pictures which illustrated French life of that era, particularly in the area around Pontoise.  Pissarro died in Paris in November 1903 and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

Painted in 1877, today’s painting is entitled The Red Roofs and is a small (55 x 85cms) oil on canvas picture which hangs in the Musée d’Orsay.  The location for this painting is a group of farm buildings called La Côte des Boeufs, near Pontoise.   The painting is complicated by the fact that the artist wanted to show the buildings as seen through the trees but the screen of trees makes us look quickly beyond the trees, into the heart of the painting, and by doing so one can differentiate the many layers of colour.

The Bridge at Moret by Alfred Sisley (1893)

The Bridge at Moret by Alfred Sisley (1893)

Alfred Sisley, born in Paris to English parents in1839, was sometimes called the “Forgotten Impressionist”.  At the age of 18 his father, a silk trader, sent him to London to study business but life as a business man similar to that of his father was not for him and he soon moved back to Paris.  His family supported him in his ambition to become an artist and sent him to Gleyre’s studio where he met and worked alongside Monet and Renoir.  In 1867 he became a pupil of Corot and a number of Sisley’s works reflect that tutelage with the way in which he has a passionate interest in the sky which became a dominate facet of his paintings

He still rates as one of the greatest Impressionists who ever lived and was regarded as an exceptional en plein air (outdoor) landscape painter.  Landscape painting was his favourite genre and he rarely attempted portraits.  Similar to another great English landscape artist John Constable, Sisley liked just to concentrate on painting places he knew well such as the Seine and Thames valleys.

The painting on display to today is one of his later works, The Bridge at Moret, which he completed in 1893 and is now exhibited in the Musee d’Orsay.   Alfred Sisley died in Moret-sur-Loing at the age of 59,  just a few months after the death of his wife.   Moret-sur-Loing  is a small and charming historical town in the Seine-et-Marne department of north central France and which  was a source of inspiration for Monet, Renoir and Sisley.