Helena Rubinstein: Constructing an Image, Building an Empire

For the upcoming exhibition Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power (October 31, 2014 – March 22, 2015), Alex Kelly, the spring Shoshanna and David Wingate Curatorial Intern, assisted the Jewish Museum curatorial staff in gathering research on Helena Rubinstein’s life, collection, and cosmetics business. Here, Alex reflects on the experience of getting to know this charismatic art lover, entrepreneur, and self-made woman.

Helena Rubinstein devoted her life to the pursuit of youth and beauty. Her cosmetics company began at the turn of the 20th century as a humble one-woman operation. For more than six decades she grew the Helena Rubinstein brand into a global empire. One of the things I’ve found most impressive about Madame (as she was ubiquitously known) is how she carefully crafted her public image throughout her career, using her own name, face, voice, and life story to successfully sell her beauty brand.

Ad from 1929

As her cosmetics are no longer available in the United States, Rubinstein is perhaps best remembered here as a collector. Her homes and beauty salons were veritable galleries of modern art and African and Oceanic sculpture, while her closets teamed with couture ensembles and jewels. The exhibition Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power will show great examples from her diverse collections as well as tell the incredible story of Rubinstein’s life and business.

My time as a curatorial intern has been spent in libraries all around New York City, delving into biographies and documentaries of Rubinstein, fashion magazines, and auction catalogues. Since the exhibition does not focus on a single artist, theme, or period, I have gotten to explore many different areas of art history and pop culture. One day I’d be looking at archival photographs to see which works Madame lent to a landmark African art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935 and how they were installed back then. The next day I’d be watching video cassette tapes of a variety show Rubinstein sponsored in 1958, examining her first forays into TV advertisements.

One of the most difficult tasks I was given was to research the dates of Rubinstein’s life events. She was born the eldest of eight daughters in an Orthodox Jewish home in Poland in 1872. As soon as she left Europe, in her mid-20s, on a ship to Australia, she began constructing her identity on her own terms by romanticizing details of her past. At this point, the myth of her life story is almost completely inextricable from the facts.

The best research tool for determining fact from fiction – and my favorite one by far – has been the online Vogue archive. Every page of every issue of Vogue since 1892 has been digitized and made searchable. I have uncovered articles written about the opening of her latest salons, gorgeous fashion shoots that were staged in her Park Avenue triplex penthouse, and hundreds of advertisements – some of which will be featured in the exhibition. Ads are a surprisingly revealing source of information. At the time, they purposefully presented Rubinstein’s public image (a few examples are illustrated here), but they now provide concrete details about her life in fine print. For example, by noting the change in address listed in her ads and the dates they were published, I was able to determine exactly when and where each of her beauty salons was in operation in New York over the course of 40 years.

Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power will provide the opportunity to explore a multitude of objects, tied together by the life of one remarkable woman. Just as importantly, it brings to light the story of Helena Rubinstein and her dominant role in the creation of the modern beauty industry. I can guarantee that after learning the story of Madame, applying lipstick will never be quite the same again.