Paul César Helleu was born in Vannes, Brittany, France. His father, who was a customs inspector, died when Helleu was in his teens. Despite opposition from his widowed mother, he then went to Paris and studied at Lycée Chaptal. In 1876, at age 16, he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, beginning academic training in art with Jean-Léon Gérôme. Helleu attended the Second Impressionist Exhibition in the same year, and made his first acquaintances with John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and Claude Monet. He was struck by their modern, bold alla prima technique and outdoor scenes, so far removed from the studio. To survive following graduation, Helleu took a job with the firm Théodore Deck Ceramique Française hand-painting fine decorative plates. At this same time, he met Giovanni Boldini, a portrait painter with a facile, bravura style, who became a mentor and comrade, and strongly influenced his future artistic style.