Helena Rubinstein

It began innocently enough when I received the e-mail:


I immediately forwarded it to J and A asking if this was of interest to either of them.  They both bit and we made our usual plans of a museum (this exhibit) and dinner (at The Writing Room [our new go-to restaurant on the UES as the food was outstanding and the menu had more we wanted to try than we could possibly eat in one meal]).  We met at the museum this past Sunday where A was generous enough to buy my ticket since J and her Cool Culture Card were delayed due to typical MTA bus/subway weekend stupidity.  A and I entered the exhibit to get out of the crush of the lobby.

The exhibit begins with a panel on the wall introducing us to Helena Rubinstein.  Jewish and born in 1870 in Krakow, Poland, she made her way to Australia by the outbreak of World War I where she began a line of cosmetics and skin-care products.  When she came to the United States, she introduced the everyday woman to makeup at a time when only actresses in Hollywood and prostitutes wore makeup.

Feminism is expressed in many different ways.  Today, one way women argue for feminism is by going without makeup, leaving their bare face exposed.  Helena Rubinstein argued the opposite: she believed that feminism and beauty do not have to be separate, that beauty is power.  She taught that a woman’s identity was her own to create and makeup was one tool to do so.  Feminism is about defining yourself and your own beauty.

The exhibit consists of 6 rooms.  The first room is dedicated to Helena and her story.  We see a wall lined with paintings of Madame (as she became known).  When she was in her thirties, she began commissioning portraits of herself.   The wall is fascinating as you see different perspectives of the woman (depending on the artist) as well as her graceful aging through the years.  My favorite is the one in which she is sitting regally in a Balenciaga dress.  A shortened version of the dress is also on display.  As we learned, she had all of her designer gowns shortened as she grew older so she could wear them every day.

The second room is where we are introduced to Madame’s art collection.  She collected masks and statues from Africa at a time when this art was nearly ignored.  She had paintings by Picasso, Warhol, Frieda Kahlo, Matisse and many others.  Most of these works of art hung in the chain of beauty salons she ran around the world.

The third room is an extension of these pieces.  Most fascinating to me are the 12 sketches (out of 30) by Picasso.  Some were stereotypical Picasso with lines and hard edges while some, as A pointed out, showed us Picasso’s classical training.  Each drawing shows a different emotion on Madame’s face as she dealt with the artist and his ways.  The placard alongside these drawings stated that Picasso refused to draw Madame as he did not like drawing portraits of people.  The next time Madame was at her apartment in Paris, she went to Picasso’s home where she absolutely refused to take no for an answer and made Picasso draw her.  He drew 30 sketches over two visits.

At this point, my memory goes fuzzy as to the order of the rooms.  If you do see the exhibit, please let me know the correct order and I will edit my post.

The fourth room was the room of beauty.  A short video played on loop showing some of Madame’s beauty techniques and an interview with her.  The museum had on display some of Madame’s original creams and pamphlets along with a copy of her autobiography, My Life For Beauty.  It was above this book that I saw the placard with this motivating quote:

hr quote

There was also an article and picture (from either Life Magazine or the New York Times) about Helena Rubinstein and her company.  In the picture, she is wearing a lab coat and looking powerful.  She has approximately a dozen men in business suits standing behind her, cowering, clearly intimidated by her.  As Madame hit her 90s (she passed away at the age of 95 in 1965), her work came home with her.  Not wanting to step down from her position as head of Helena Rubinstein Beauty Salons, she held meetings from her bed.  With pillows stacked behind her so she could sit up, she ran board meetings from her bed, surrounded by men in suits.  I aspire to be in charge of a company and respected just like she was.

The fifth room contained a small display of Madame’s clothing and jewels.  Her wardrobe and jewelry collection are both to be lusted over.  Even though she was only 4’10, she dressed and carried herself like the woman in charge that she was.

The sixth and final room gave us a peek into Madame’s home life, with pictures and spreads about her triplex on Park Avenue and other homes.  She had collected so much art, that she turned the third floor of the apartment into an art gallery that was also used for photo shoots.  The best part in this section of the exhibit was the story in which she wanted an apartment on Park Avenue in the 1940s.  As World War II and the Holocaust churned in Europe , there was still anti-Semitism in New York City.  The board refused to allow Helena Rubinstein to be a tenant in the building because she was Jewish.  As we saw with the Picasso sketches, Madame did not like being told no.  She bought the building.

A small room off the sixth room contained a series of miniatures.  Madame had miniature rooms designed to house her collection of miniature objects.  The rooms reminded me very much of the miniature house designed for the main character in The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton that I had read for Book Club in September.

This exhibit left me wanting to learn more about Helena Rubinstein.  With her spunk, intelligence, refusal to accept “no” for an answer, modern ways, business acumen, and more, she became a role model for me in an hour.  She reminds me a lot of my grandmother, which is not easy.  I even went so far as to add Madame to my “Goals, Aspirations, & Inspirations” section of my bulletin board at work:

hr wall

If you’re in New York between now and March 22, I suggest you head over to The Jewish Museum (it’s on the corner of 5th Avenue and E 92nd Street – the entrance is on 92nd) and see the exhibit for yourself.

Until next time, Fitters.

For this post, I filled in holes in my memory from the following references and sources:


Boyfriend D proofread this post before I posted it and said, “You gave a review of the exhibit.  I thought you wanted to talk about why she is a role model to you.”  The highlighted sections?  That’s why I think this woman is amazing and put her picture on my “Goals, Aspirations, and Inspirations” Board.

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