Though he moved to Paris when he was a young man, Helleu was born in Vannes in 1859. His first job was painting on ceramics. He later became a pupil of Jean Leon Gérome at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts and befriended fellow student John Singer Sargent. Gérome was to buy his first painting.
The Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876 profoundly impacted Helleu and Sargent. It went so far that Helleu applied to the group and was accepted as one of them. However in 1886 when he was invited to the eighth exhibition, he was advised not to exhibit by his friend, Impressionist Claude Monet.
Helleu earned a living that enabled him to enjoy yachts and sailing – a pleasure he inherited from his father, a naval officer. He mixed with English and French society at Deauville and Cowes which served to increase his popularity. His wife enjoyed entertaining on their boat L’Etoile and Helleu painted many canvasses of life on board and other harbour scenes.
Portrait of a Young Woman has been inscribed ‘ To Alice’. Perhaps what makes him all the more appealing to the modern viewer is that, despite his time spent immortalising young women, he was not a cad; throughout their lives together, his favourite model was his wife.