Archives, The Artist Birthday Series

Jean Hélion

Today’s Artist Birthday: Jean Hélion

Jean Hélion (April 21, 1904 – October 27, 1987) was a French painter whose abstract work of the 1930s established him as a leading modernist. His midcareer rejection of abstraction was followed by nearly five decades as a figurative painter. He was also the author of several books and an extensive body of critical writing.

Jean Hélion in his studio, c.
Jean Hélion in his studio, c.1930

Hélion was born at Couterne, Orne, the son of a taxi driver and a dressmaker. After spending his first eight years with his grandmother, he rejoined his parents in Amiens, where he went to school. Although he experimented with painting pictures on cardboard as a schoolboy, his greater love was poetry. Interested in chemistry as well, he began working as an assistant to a pharmacist in 1918, and set up a laboratory in his bedroom. He later wrote, “…I dreamed and was attracted by shapes and colors which proceeded from the reality of things and were their very essence. My passion for inorganic chemistry arose from my fondness for these shapes, these crystals, these colours, this analysis of a revealed truth.” In 1920 he enrolled in the study of chemistry at l’Institut Industriel du Nord in Lille (École centrale de Lille), but left for Paris in 1921 without finishing the course.

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L’Istitut Industriel du Nord

In Paris he wrote poetry and worked as an architectural apprentice. He experienced what he called the great turning point of his life while on a research project at the Louvre, where he discovered the works of Nicolas Poussin and Philippe de Champaigne, and decided to become a painter. His first paintings date from 1922–23. In 1925 he abandoned his architectural studies and began attending figure drawing classes at the Académie Adler.
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