Paul César Helleu worked as a painter and an engraver in France at the turn of the century. His work epitomises the charm and elegance of French culture at the time – the belle époque – with all its verve and focus on fashion. Whilst he was renowned for his portraits of society ladies on commission, and those of his childhood sweetheart who later became his wife (Alice Guerin), this sitter is his eldest daughter Ellen, born in 1887. Therefore date of this work is probably between 1905 and 1910.
The daughter of Singer sewing machine magnate Issac Singer, Winaretta Singer (1865–1943) was a prominent arts and music patron. She established a salon in the Paris home she shared with her second husband, Prince Edmond de Polignac (1834–1901), which was frequented by Marcel Proust, Isadora Duncan, Jean Cocteau, and Claude Monet. After her husband’s death she used her fortune to benefit the arts and especially music, commissioning several works. She was also an artist in her own right, exhibiting her paintings in the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
The Princess, notes Frédérique de Watrigant in her recent monograph, “seriously considered having Helleu paint the portraits of all her friends. Her union with the prince was set up by the Countess Greffulhe and Robert de Montesquiou (her previous marriage, which very briefly bestowed on her the title of Princess Louis de Scey-Montbéliard, was annulled)” [de Watrigant, p. 34].