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“Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power” at the Jewish Museum

Helena Rubinstein was a self-made woman who transformed herself from a young Polish immigrant into the founder of a global beauty brand. This winter, a first-of-its-kind exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York recreates Rubinstein’s world from her business to her art collection to her unique personal style.

Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965) was one of the great cosmetics entrepreneurs of the 20th century and a woman ahead of her time in many ways. Beauty was her business, but she also broke down the boundaries between art, fashion, and interior decoration in her multi-media promotion of her brand. In the process, she showed women how to reinvent themselves. Her social circle included artists, writers, and movie stars, and her life story was as colorful and multi-faceted as the sparkling jewels she loved to wear. Here’s a look at the many sides of Madame Rubinstein, as presented through the show at the Jewish Museum.

Early Life and Travels

Helena Rubinstein was born Chaja Rubinstein in Krakow, Poland in 1872. She was the oldest of eight daughters in a lower middle-class, Orthodox Jewish family, and from an early age she had a rebellious personality. When she refused an arranged marriage that her parents planned for her, she was sent to live with an aunt in Vienna. There she learned about fashion and retail through the family fur business.

In 1896 Rubinstein moved to Australia to live with relatives. Noticing how many Australian women had sun-damaged skin, she began to sell a facial cream that a local chemist helped her to concoct. This product, called Valaze, was an early cornerstone of her beauty empire. Building on its success, Rubinstein opened stores in Melbourne and Sydney, then in London. After the outbreak of World War I, she and her American husband, Edward Titus, and their two sons, Roy and Horace, moved to the United States.

The Business of Beauty

Rubinstein’s first New York skincare salon opened to much fanfare in 1915. From the beginning, she was an innovative and confident executive who successfully fought sexism and anti-Semitism in the business world. As Rubinstein later recalled, “It was not easy being a hard-working woman in a man’s world many years ago.” By the mid-twentieth century, nevertheless, her company had expanded to four continents. 

Rubinstein’s enterprise also had the advantage of good timing. Until the 1920s, cosmetics were worn primarily by stage actresses and prostitutes, not by respectable women. Now, due to the growth of the movie industry, ordinary women wanted to add a little extra glamour to their own lives. As more women were entering the workforce, they had some additional income to spend on themselves, and the suffragist movement also encouraged them to seek greater social freedom and self-expression. 

Mascara and More

From the 1920s to the 1960s, the Helena Rubinstein brand offered more and more products to meet and encourage customers’ needs; some of its most innovative products included waterproof mascara, a lipstick shaped like an actual pair of lips and a “sun tint” bronzing gel for the body. Rubinstein also promoted her brand by publishing books about beauty and by working with famous clients like Theda Bara and Josephine Baker. She encouraged women to recognize beauty of all types, and to incorporate exercise and good nutrition into their regimens.

Rubinstein’s greatest marketing tools of all might have been her beauty salons. Her company’s flagship salon on New York’s Fifth Avenue was a place where women could receive facial treatments and massages, but could also linger and learn: it was furnished like a combination of an elegant apartment, a beauty laboratory, a library and an art gallery. Rubinstein said, “Every woman who can should have at least one ‘salon experience.’ It will teach her much and give her knowledge about herself.”

Art Patronage, Interior Design

In addition to her career as a cosmetics magnate, Rubinstein was an adventurous art collector. Inspired by time spent in Paris, she purchased works by artists of the avant-garde, including Georges Braque, Max Ernst, and Joan Miro; on a visit to Mexico, she befriended Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. She also enthusiastically collected African sculpture, at a time when it wasn’t yet considered fine art by most Europeans or Americans. At the Jewish Museum, Rubinstein’s private art collection is recreated in several rooms.

Rubinstein owned lavish homes in Paris, London, New York City, Connecticut, and the French countryside. She hired up-and-coming designers to decorate her residences in the most contemporary styles and used them to showcase her art collections. She commissioned Salvador Dali to paint Surrealist murals for her apartment on Park Avenue, and she brought wider attention to her homes by allowing them to be used as backdrops for fashion shoots and other magazine photography.

Personal Style

Rubinstein was her own greatest invention: she had emerged from her early immigrant years into an international style icon and household name. After her marriage to her second husband, the Georgian nobleman Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, she even referred to herself as “Princess Gourielli.” She had a distinctive look, with her dark hair pulled back in a chignon and cosmetics flawlessly applied to her strong features. She dressed her short, voluptuous figure in dazzling jewels and eclectic fashions from celebrated designers like Paul Poiret, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Elsa Schiaparelli.

Some of Rubinstein’s jewelry and items of clothing are displayed at the Jewish Museum, alongside portraits by artists who enjoyed capturing her bold, individualistic style. Just a few of the artists who painted or drew Rubinstein were Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.

In a filmed interview (shown in the final room of the Jewish Museum’s exhibition), Rubinstein said, “Nature always needs improving. No one stays young forever.” She might not have stayed young or lived forever, but nearly a half-century after her death at the age of 92, her legacy remains.

“Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power” continues at the Jewish Museum through March 22, 2015.

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