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Study in scarlet

by Angus Trumble, 2 October 2018

Helena Rubinstein in a red brocade Balenciaga gown, 1957 by Graham Sutherland
Helena Rubinstein in a red brocade Balenciaga gown, 1957 by Graham Sutherland

Helena Rubinstein (1872–1965) was the first self-made multi-millionairess of modern times, and created the first publicly-listed global cosmetics corporation. That empire began its life in 1902 as a single upstairs room in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. Three of Helena Rubinstein’s uncles had emigrated from Kraków via London to Victoria between 1870 and 1886, and established a mixed business in Coleraine in the Western District of Victoria. She followed them, unaccompanied, in 1896. She seems to have become convinced that lanolin from local fleeces might be used to improve and adapt the twelve pots of her mother’s face cream she brought with her from Poland. In 1902, Helena Rubinstein established her first salon de beauté at 138 Elizabeth Street, supplying skin-nurturing ‘Crème Valaze’. That product purportedly contained rare herbs gathered in the Carpathian Mountains, together with essence of almonds and the bark of an evergreen tree. It was said to have been formulated by a Hungarian chemist, Dr Josef Lykusky, and imported from Russia. In fact, the recipe consisted of lanolin, ‘vegetable oil, mineral oil and wax’, and was produced locally with the aid of Felton Grimwade in Flinders Lane. Dr Lykusky was almost certainly fictitious.

Helena Rubinstein had a genius for business. She grasped from the outset that her products needed to be expensive – that working women thirsted for luxury, and would pay for it. Her products also needed to be seen as ‘scientifically formulated in the laboratory’, and obviously they needed to work. She understood the need to emphasise the use of ‘natural ingredients’, even though she was an aggressive adder of bleach and other synthetic agents. At the same time, she was prescient in insisting that prolonged exposure to the sun was harmful to the skin. She also insisted upon maintaining opulently furnished, well-staffed flagship salons (‘instituts’ de beauté Valaze) so as to create widespread fascination with her products. In fact, the vast bulk of her products were sold through department stores. Within fifteen years she created an unprecedented mass market; she built and supervised factories, and tightly controlled every aspect of her ‘brand’. Above all, she understood that she herself needed to project personal glamour – in costume, maquillage and coiffure – to attract sustained publicity. Her astonishing wardrobe was wholly strategic, beginning with the House of Worth in Paris, and continuing through Paul Poiret, Jacques Doucet, Captain Edward Molyneux, Lanvin, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Dior, Givenchy and Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Beauty Tips, c. 1955 Helena Rubinstein’s niece Mala Kolin illustrates basic lines of the face for ideal make-up application

Rubinstein pioneered the use of non-streaking mascara, and various other forms of eye make-up. Almost singlehandedly she obliterated the widespread American stigma associated with the use of rouge and lipstick. When, at the age of 83, at the height of her power and wealth, she sat in London and Paris for this magnificent portrait by Graham Sutherland OM, the artist persuaded her to wear her red brocade gown by Cristóbal Balenciaga. Although by her own account, even wearing high heels, Rubinstein stood at not quite four foot ten, Sutherland thought she looked like an empress.

By 1907 (in only five years) Helena Rubinstein had raised out of her Melbourne salon de beauté £12,000 in capital out of a seeding loan of £250 (£100 of which was furnished by John Thompson, general manager of the Robur Tea Company); this was the only money she ever borrowed. With that £12,000 she took herself to London and promptly opened salons there and in Paris. New York naturally followed, then Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto … and global dominance in face cream was attained in record time. By the mid-1920s the share price of the Rubinstein Corporation nudged $70, and she was persuaded to sell her controlling interest to Lehman Brothers. After the Wall Street Crash, rightly convinced that Lehmans had been neglecting the business, she bought the whole of it back for $3 a share – in cash. The pinnacle of Helena Rubinstein’s social ascent was her second marriage in 1938 to the Russian emigré Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia (some 25 years her junior). Thenceforth she rejoiced in the style and title of Princess Gourielli.

‘Madame’, as she was known to her executives, retained a lifelong affection for Australia. Although two of her seven younger sisters (Ceska and Manka) eventually took on the Australian, British and South African firms, Rubinstein made regular trips back to Australia – the last one in 1957, which was when William Dobell also painted her (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne).

Graham Sutherland, 1943 by Lee Miller

Graham Sutherland OM (1903–1980) was one of the most distinguished British painters of the twentieth century. In his autobiography, Kenneth Clark described how Sutherland told him during World War II that in future he very much wanted to paint portraits, an ambition that at the time Clark greeted with scepticism, even bewilderment. It seemed to fly in the face of Sutherland’s hitherto largely surrealistic oeuvre. Sutherland graduated in printmaking from Goldsmiths’ College School of Art in London. He turned to oil painting when the British print market collapsed during the Great Depression, and at first made his reputation as a Surrealist, and as a master of Pembrokeshire landscape, focussing on wild escarpments and the gnarled roots of ancient trees. Through Clark’s influence Sutherland was brought into the War Artists’ Scheme, focussing mainly on bomb damage in London, tin-mining in Cornwall, coal mines, limestone quarries, and on documenting the damage inflicted by the RAF on German bomb depots in occupied France.

Sutherland’s reputation, output and confidence grew dramatically during the late 1940s and 1950s. He designed the vast tapestry (1962) for Basil Spence’s new Coventry Cathedral, and his portraits of Somerset Maugham (1949, Tate), and the Right Hon. Sir Winston Churchill (1954, destroyed) were among the most celebrated works of British contemporary art in the post-war years. He went on to paint such luminaries as Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Sackville, Lord Clark, Lord Goodman, Pierre Schlumberger and Baron Elie de Rothschild. This is the company Helena Rubinstein and her portrait keep in the late 1950s. Graham Sutherland was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1960.

William Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, 1952 by Graham Sutherland

Helena Rubinstein sat for Sutherland in her suite at Claridge’s and then in her townhouse in the quai de Béthune on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris in May 1956. Before she departed for New York (and he for London) Sutherland snipped a piece of fabric from inside the hem of the gown so as to be able to reproduce it as exactly as possible. In the end, apart from the many superb drawings and studies he executed quickly – in due course these passed from the estate of the artist’s widow to the British Museum – Sutherland produced three versions of the portrait. The first was destroyed in a fire in his Trottiscliffe studio. A second, larger version, which shows Madame standing imperiously, her hands firmly planted on rather solid hips, was purchased by Lord Beaverbrook and is today in the collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It is, arguably, as John Hayes put it, the more truculent and obviously proprietorial, straying in the direction of coarseness. It also differs from the third, smaller version in that Sutherland chose here to place Helena Rubinstein against a shallow enclosing space that consists of wainscot panelling, the upper half of which is blocked in with broad, dessicated verticals that recall mid-career Francis Bacon, whom Sutherland knew well. However, in Sutherland’s hands this technique and the effect of it are, I think, at odds with his far more exacting treatment of the standing figure of Helena Rubinstein and of her magnificent head. The contrast is, I think, slightly jarring.

Helena Rubinstein, 1957 by Graham Sutherland

The smaller version of her finished portrait by Sutherland was acquired by Helena Rubinstein herself, and hung in the vestibule of her Park Avenue triplex until her death. It was then owned by the Helena Rubinstein Foundation in New York, who wound up their operations in 2011. The painting was sold at Sotheby’s, acquired by the London dealer Danny Katz, from whom the National Portrait Gallery secured it for Canberra, thanks to the generosity of Marilyn Darling AC, Tim Fairfax AC, and the Sid and Fiona Myer Family Foundation. The portrait depicts Helena Rubinstein seated with incomparable dignity and splendour. She is erect, strong, silent, and, as Cameron noted, heavily bejewelled.

Her head is held high, while the strength of her arm and the tension in her wrist continue all the way down to her glossily lacquered fingers’ ends, the nail of her left index finger carefully sharpened into something like a talon. The artist was obviously fascinated by his subject, the cast of her head, the strength of her octogenarian neck, the line of her nostril, the sense of shrewd determination with which he endows her eyes and mouth and chin, the blackness and the thinness of her hair, dragged with such force into her signature chignon. There is, at the same time, a palpable sense of tautness and containment in the pose, which Sutherland himself remarked upon, as well as a degree of tension that is reinforced by the disciplined geometry to which the artist held himself. His preparatory grid of steep ruled diagonal and intersecting horizontal lines is clearly visible in places beneath the relatively thin paint film. One wrist does not rest over the other; it is, rather, as if the left strains downward over the right, and the right pushes upward in equal measure both serving to fix her shoulders and set her elbows. She may be calm and still, but Helena Rubinstein is, here, far from relaxed.

Graham Sutherland, 1977 Unknown photographer

This smaller version in Canberra benefits from an absolutely plain, mostly smooth, thinly painted blue-grey background – a high-keyed void into which the figure looms with not a little drama. It also benefits from the comparatively elongated proportions of the canvas, something it shares with Sutherland’s earlier portrait of Somerset Maugham, and a consequent loftiness of space in which the artist accommodates his subject. In both versions, Helena Rubinstein holds that curious small fan, an accessory with which Sutherland allowed himself more than a hint of characteristically personal stylisation – as if something small and dry and spiky has been plucked from one of his contorted surrealist landscapes from many years earlier, or lozenge-like out of one of his thorny bushes. It is a clever compositional device in both versions, not only providing Helena Rubinstein with something to handle, but also serving to soften the rather over-emphatic horizontal line that passes through her waist. In the Canberra version, the spry verticality of the fan works better, I think, than in the Beaverbrook picture, and also maybe serves as a gentle rebuke, post hoc, of the artist’s own severity with regard to his rather unflattering portrayal of Helena Rubinstein’s nearest knuckles and of that startling fingernail. It is also the nearest we get to any hint, any suggestion, any evidence of tremulous motion in an otherwise perfectly still portrait. A careful preparatory drawing and Felix Man photograph, in both of which it is nowhere to be seen, prove that Sutherland’s fan was a very late arrival, but that the fingernail was an important compositional consideration from the very outset.

There can be no question that Graham Sutherland derived considerable excitement from seeing Helena Rubinstein as a sort of Byzantine empress. And he was not alone. The trope crops up in other places. Rubinstein’s amanuensis Patrick O’Higgins recalled a chance post-war re-encounter in a hotel dining room at Villefranche, for example, when Jean Cocteau ‘raised his arm like a Roman Centurian [incredibly] and greeted Madame thus: “Je salue l’Impératrice de Byzance!”’ Later, Roderick Cameron made it clear that at times the analogy dripped with sarcasm. She was, he thought (in the Beaverbrook version), ‘a great middle-European peasant lady standing firmly in profile armoured by her own astuteness and hard work in the carapace of glitter, enamelled in beads [sic] and jewels, [and] looked like some formidable twentieth-century Byzantine empress’. For ‘middle-European peasant lady’, read Jew. In January 1938, Cecil Beaton, meanwhile, whose anti-Semitic credentials are well documented, had described Helena Rubinstein in his diary even more crudely as ‘an old Polish frog … with a huge casket of jewels. I have never seen such a collection, and she clicks her teeth and shrugs “Only rubbish. Much more in Paris” – but they are jewels that would belong to a kingdom, not a private individual.’ When he came to paint her portrait in 1942-43, Salvador Dalí made a related but rather more subtle point by representing Helena Rubinstein, Andromeda-like, fastened to a rock with chains of her own emeralds. As recently as 1982, Graham Sutherland’s biographer Roger Berthoud could state that Helena Rubinstein’s portrait conveyed ‘the imperious air of a potentate and the ferocity of a bird of prey’. Such assessments tell us rather more about the men who made them than they shed much light on the character of Helena Rubinstein.

For her part, Rubinstein was so startled by both versions of her portrait when she first saw them in London in 1957 that she confessed to not much liking them. ‘The last portrait of me,’ she wrote, ‘done by Graham Sutherland, portrays me as an eagle-eyed matriarch! At first I hated it, but with time the picture has grown on me. And I remind myself that some art critics have likened it to a Renaissance masterpiece … I had never seen myself in such a harsh light. Yet later, when they were exhibited at the Tate Gallery [between October and Christmas 1957], although I scarcely recognized myself through Sutherland’s eyes, I had to admit that as paintings they were indeed masterpieces.’

Portraits of Helena Rubinstein, 1955 by Pablo Picasso

If Graham Sutherland’s portraits of Helena Rubinstein constitute a memorable encounter between an exacting artist and a superb subject, perhaps the greatest portrait was the one that was never painted. Certainly, by the time Rubinstein’s memoir My Life for Beauty was published in London in 1964, she fully expected to eventually take delivery of a portrait by Pablo Picasso for which she sat in the artist’s villa, La Californie, outside Cannes in the South of France on successive evenings not quite ten years earlier, in November 1955. She had known Picasso for over 40 years, and owned a number of his paintings and a large tapestry that hung in her Park Avenue drawing room.

Portraits of Helena Rubinstein, 1955 by Pablo Picasso

Inevitably, I suppose, one cannot help thinking of a comparable encounter 50 years earlier between the young Picasso and another powerful woman, Gertrude Stein, whom Helena Rubinstein eventually knew in Paris through the avant-garde publishing activities of her first husband Edward Titus. By the 1950s, however, a decidedly unequal power relationship frequently existed between the universally lionised artist and his often much younger female subjects, such as Marie-Thérèse Walter, Françoise Gilot and Jacqueline Roque – unequal, and steeped in undisguised sexual tension. Although on that occasion he produced an impressive suite of drawings of Helena Rubinstein, Picasso seems to have been unwilling, even unable, to tackle her on anything like an equal footing. Madame recalled part of their conversation:

‘First, how old are you?’ he asked.

‘Older than you’, I replied, and this seemed to delight him. He then looked at me long and carefully.

‘You have large ears’, he said. ‘They are large as mine. Elephants also have large ears. They live forever. We will too!’ Then he put down his pencil and looked at me still more closely.

‘The distance between your ears and your eyes is exactly the same as mine’, he shouted gleefully.

‘What does that mean?’

‘It means that you are a genius – just like me!’

Whether or not Picasso was aware that he had met his match in Helena Rubinstein; that their friendship, often wary, extended so far back into nearly forgotten territory; that he was possibly even intimidated by her wealth and power or even intimidated by the fact that, in turn, Helena Rubinstein was in no way intimidated by Pablo Picasso – we shall never know. Certainly, she dressed for the occasion. According to Patrick O’Higgins, ‘under an opera coat quilted in shades of orange and lemon with calla lilies and sprigs of mimosa, Madame wore a medieval tunic of acid green velvet’. Over lunch, Picasso remarked: ‘You look like a marvellous transvestite – ‘un travesti’ – dressed for the Bal des Quat-z-arts.’ ‘I dressed specially for you. When do we start?’ was Helena Rubinstein’s exquisite reply. When Picasso showed it to him, John Richardson thought that the finished dossier of quickly executed pencil and charcoal drawings was remarkable. However, he was quick to note that Picasso never drew farther, practically, than Helena Rubinstein’s chin, her wrist or her nostril. Nowhere in the group is there a drawing of the whole woman that might plausibly have anticipated his ideas for a full or three-quarter or half-length composition. It seems likely that Picasso had no intention of proceeding thence to canvas. The portrait was never painted. Helena Rubinstein died in New York City, aged 92½, on 1 April 1965.

Installation wall, Rubinstein portraits: Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power at the Jewish Museum, New York, 2014 Image: David Heald

We acknowledge the gracious assistance of the National Portrait Gallery, London in providing images for this article.

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