Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Helena Rubinstein - The Portraits

Now it has been a while since I have mentioned Helena Rubinstein, as most of you know one of my favourite personalities from the 20th century. Madame had more savoir faire than us mere mortals and if there ever was a goddess of savoir faire, Madame would be it!

Maybe to constantly remind herself and her public of her incredible sense of style, Madame commissioned her portrait to be painted by the most famous artists of the day. In total 27 portraits were commissioned by artists such as Salvador Dali, Raul Dufy, Marie Laurencin, Marcel Vertes and Graham Sutherland. There has been no other woman in the twentieth century (except maybe Luisa Casati or the Queen) who has had their portrait painted by so many different artists.

It is interesting to see these portraits as they not only convey a different conception of the same women over a period of time but how Rubinstein thought of herself. By no means a beauty herself, some of the portraits are beautiful, such as the Laurencin portrait which conveys Madame as an Indian princess, serene and ethereal (one of my favourites).

On the other hand the Dali conveyed her shackled to cliff face via a string of emeralds. "He felt I was bound by my possessions, which is very far from the truth," was Madame’s explanation of the portrait, which seems a bit odd coming from someone who amassed a plethora of possessions.
Towards the later years the portraits convey a matriarch that was casting her eagle eye over all and sundry. Although tiny in stature the portraits by Graham Sutherland and William Dobell portray a larger than life figure that could have been frightening to some. Initially she hated the Sutherland portrait, but grew to like it – maybe it was a little too accurate!

With the Dobell portrait, she thought it "rather too much of a caricature", although that didn't stop her endowing a travelling scholarship for Australian artists.

However one artist did elude her and that was Picasso. She professed that "I would never have asked him for a portrait”. However she hounded him until she had annoyed him so much that finally he gave in and did a whole series of drawings. They made her look so horrible that he never showed them to her. She appears in Picasso's sketches as a cadaverous crone with gnarled, bejewelled knuckles.

The Rene Bouche portrait from 1960 below is probably a far more accurate interpretation of Madame in later life, than previous portraits, with Madame looking small and the old lady she was.

Other favourites of mine are:

Marcel Vertes

Baron Kurt Ferdinand von Pantz 1944

Edward Bernard Lintott 1936

While all the portaraits are in a different style they are umistakingly the ame woman with lots of savoir faire!


  1. She was certainly a formidable woman wasn't she.

  2. I thought this was the most spectacular review of a life of lady in paintings I have ever read. Thank you for the pleasure, I enjoyed it tremendously. I never thought Helena loved to be painted as much as she did.I thought Dali's painting of her was the most remarkable.

  3. CMA-Thankyou! I know years ago the National Portrait gallery did an exhibition of all the portraits. I have the catalogue and it is fascinating to see them all together as a whole.

    Belle- Yep, she was. I dont think I would have liked to cross her.

  4. Years ago I read the Rubenstein biographies and this was a wonderful refresher with excellent commentary. Will read your archived posts!
    Square With Flair


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