Helena Rubinstein Jewish Museum New York

Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power – Presented by The Jewish Museum, New York City.

In Arts, News by Laura


Rubinstein loved large jewelry especially rubies, pearls and emeralds . She felt they drew attention to her flawless skin. Andy Warhol bought one of her rings with ‘HR’ depicted in rubies.

“There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” “Hard work keeps the wrinkles out of mind and spirit.” HR

In this day and age when entrepreneurial aspirations are a tenable reality for almost every woman and beauty is as close as the nearest plastic surgeon, Helena Rubinstein, from the humblest of beginnings, was a visionary. Part P.T. Barnum – part feminist, the self-made, 4-foot 10 inch dynamo, paved the way for the modern beauty and cosmetics industry.

By the time of Rubinstein’s death in 1965 at age 93, she was the head of a 100- million dollar cosmetics empire that crossed four continents. ‘Madame’ (as she was universally known,) had amassed one of the most important collections of African and indigenous Pacific art and sculpture in the 20th Century as well as works by Picasso, Miro, Matisse and Frida Kahlo.


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 sketches, 12 of which are on display. Credits: Pablo Picasso Portrait of Helena Rubinstein XIX 27-11-1955, 1955 Conté crayon on paper, 17 1/4 x 12 5/8 in. (43.8 x 32.1 cm) Himeji City Museum of Art, Japan. © 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Presented by The Jewish Museum, New York City and running until March 22, 2015, the exhibition, Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power includes over 200 objects, clothing and works of art: the Elsa Schiaparelli jacket embroidered with elephants that Rubinstein wore on her honeymoon with second husband and 23-years her junior, Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia; seven from her large collection of exquisite miniature period rooms; pencil drawings by Picasso whom she badgered for 20 years to draw her portrait; many bold necklaces, large cuffs and cabochon rings she stored in a tiered jewelry box indexed “D” for diamonds, “E” for emeralds, “P” for pearls. Rubinstein said that whenever her first husband cheated on her, she went out and bought more jewelry.

Born in 1872 in Krakow, Poland ‘Chaja’ was the eldest of eight daughters born to Jewish Orthodox parents. To avoid a constricting future of being married off against her wishes, she escaped at age 24, to Melbourne, living with an uncle. A parting gift from her mother were pots of skin cream containing a secret ingredient: lanolin – the greasy substance secreted in sheep’s wool (it worked for sheep – why not to soften skin?) that she mixed with herbs.

When the young, re-named ‘Helena’ saw how the heat and dryness ravaged Australian ladies’ faces, she came up with the idea of selling her cream but disguised its pungent odour by adding lavender, water lily and pine bark. Realizing that an exotic name would generate more caché, she called it Crème Valaze. Once the local women tried it, the face cream soon became a hit and she established Helena Rubinstein & Co.

‘Helena Rubinstein -Beauty is Power,’ announced the headline of an advertisement that first appeared in an Australian newspaper in 1904. The bold phrase is an early indication of Rubinstein’s distinctive blend of branding, publicity and marketing savvy, inherent feminism and sheer chutzpah.


A 1949 French advertisement for complexion powder and rouge, drawn by Bernard Villemot. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Turn of the century Europe frowned upon the use of cosmetics, previously only associated with prostitutes and actresses. Rubinstein became the great class equalizer; rejecting the notion that only upper class women deserved recognition, she marketed her cosmetics by encouraging women of every station in life to be independent and express themselves through their opinions and fashion.

Influenced by the literary and beauty salons she experienced while travelling in Vienna, Rubinstein created the precursor of the Day Spa marketing the concept of ‘A Day of Beauty’ at every salon she opened in Australia, London and Paris. At the outbreak of WWI, she moved to New York, opening her first salon there in 1915.

Having created the first tinted face powder and blush, Rubinstein was often pictured in early ads wearing a white coat to give her products scientific respectability.

Capitalizing on the suffragette movement throughout the 1920s, she encouraged the women to wear her bright red lipstick at their demonstrations to emphasize their solidarity. Rubinstein, at around the same time as arch rival, Elizabeth Arden, has been credited in developing the first mass produced mascara ‘Mascaramatic’ that really took off in the U.S. with the advent of the film industry.

“Men are just as vain as women, and sometimes even more so.” HR


Helena Rubinstein reads by the fluorescent lighting that suffuses the head and foot of her Lucite bed, designed by Ladislas Medgyes in the late 1930s. She sometimes held meetings there with staff surrounding her bed. Photograph by Herbert Gehr/Time Life/Getty Images

With homes in New York, London, Paris, and the south of France, dressed by Chanel and Yves St. Laurent, she collaborated with the most famous artists and designers of the day such as Salvador Dali, Man Ray and David Hicks to create flamboyant interiors and original packaging and ads for her beauty products.

In 1953, she established the philanthropic Helena Rubinstein Foundation to provide funds to organizations specializing in the arts, health, medical research and rehabilitation ; the America Israel Cultural Foundation and The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art in the Tel Aviv Museum.

She left her empire in the hands of her remaining son, Roy. Within eight years it had been sold to Colgate Palmolive and is now owned by L’Oreal. Her products are still produced in Europe but not in North America.

“I wish that all women paid greater attention to their natural radiance, resulting from above all, inner serenity. All the eye makeup on the market cannot illuminate eyes that have lost their interest in the world, and a woman in love with life has the best basic foundation to be found anywhere.” HR

Credits: TOP Helena Rubinstein holding one of her masks from the Ivory Coast, 1934. Photograph by George Maillard Kesslere. On wall: A selection of her portraits. © The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo by: David Heald.

Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power is organized by Mason Klein, Curator at the Jewish Museum, with Rebecca Shaykin, Leon Levy Assistant Curator.