Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power

A significant number of the art works on display are portraits of Rubinstein, including several commissioned by such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Marie Laurencin. (Frustrated by Picasso’s refusal to respond to her request that he paint her portrait, Rubinstein finally showed up at his villa in the South of France. The master grudgingly admitted her, and the result, 30 inventive and joyfully antic sketches, 12 of which are on display here, perfectly capture Madame’s signature bun, outsized jewels and impressive bearing.)  Her attraction to portraiture speaks to her lifelong interest in faces—both her own and those of the women whom she smoothed, powdered and rouged. Portrait as reflection of face, face as self-created portrait—these were the constructs by which Rubinstein lived by, and on which she thrived.

The clothes and jewelry on display are further evidence that she was a woman who understood the profound importance of self-invention and self- presentation. Her avant-garde or glittering, jewel encrusted garments (by the likes of Cristóbal Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli and Paul Poiret) and the examples of her outsized bling are the emblems of someone with a larger than life sense of herself. One spectacular diamond necklace was purchased after a quarrel with her first husband; the act felt so good, she decided to make a practice of it. Another woman might buy herself a hat or a dress to lift her mood;  Rubinstein would go for the rocks.

There are also vintage film clips of Madame talking about her products and from the beauty salons she opened London, Paris and eventually New York.  An entire room is devoted to the miniatures she lovingly collected, here displayed as period-perfect dioramas, each executed on a minute, exquisite scale.

The Rubinstein who emerges from this intriguing assemblage is indeed both beautiful and powerful; she was an invigorating and even subversive role model for the women of her time, and long after her death in 1965, she continues to inspire, and at moments, even amaze.

Need More Lilith?

Sign up now for a weekly batch of Jewish feminist essays, news, events--and incredible stories and poems from 40 years of Lilith.