Judgmental, autocratic and wholly self-made after fleeing pre-war Poland and the prospect of arranged marriage as a teen, Helena Rubinstein built a cosmetics empire on the notion that beauty is power.
But the late doyenne with the tight chignon was more than a mere worshipper of commerce. Known to all as Madame, she was a collector of African, Oceanic and Latin American art, eclectic home decor and couture fashion as the face and force of her brand for seven decades.
The diminutive powerhouse from Krakow (she stood all of 4-foot-10) died in 1965 — at age 94, by best estimates — and is the subject of a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York that highlights her rise, interests and acquisitions in 200 objects.
Though her name might be something less than household to younger generations, her legacy lives on as the Jewish girl of modest means and little formal education who embraced modernism and individualism for women at the dawn of the 20th century, when feminism was just emerging.
Born Chaja Rubinstein, she first made her way to Australia after picking up some business acumen from relatives in the fur business in Vienna. Journeying from Genoa in northern Italy through exotic ports, she worked on a relative’s sheep farm before founding her first company in Melbourne in 1903. There, she tended to the skincare needs of rugged women enduring the harsh climate.
Her first product was the cream Valaze, based on the abundance of a key ingredient, lanolin produced by sheep.
It didn’t take long for Rubinstein to expand her line of products and open salons around the world, providing everything from skin analysis and massage to deportment and exercise classes. Fond of publishing instructional brochures, she modeled her salons after the literary gatherings of upper-crust Europe.
Where did the drive come from? Mason Klein, the museum’s curator who organized “Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power, ” said Monday that Rubinstein was the oldest of eight girls.
“Without being too Freudian, I think having to really go off on her own as the eldest child made her that much more ambitious, or one could even say the de facto son that her parents never had, ” Klein surmised ahead of the exhibit’s Oct. 31 opening as he gazed up at some of the many portraits she had commissioned.
The many faces of Rubinstein range from a playful oil on canvas by the Parisian avant-garde painter Marie Laurencin, done in 1934, to the grotesque and far more subjective work of William Dobell in 1957 that depicts Rubinstein as an aging warrior.
Rubinstein was often painted as far younger than she was, Klein said, but another portrait from 1957 by the English painter Graham Sutherland was among those to burst Madame’s bubble, showing her as hawk-eyed and severe in a red Balenciaga gown. Declaring that she looked like a witch, she later warmed to the work after it was lauded at a Tate Gallery show in London.
And Picasso was the artist who eluded Rubinstein’s thirst for portraits. She pursued him aggressively to no avail, until she knocked on his door to make her demand. Trapped, he produced a series of about 30 crude drawings, some akin to police sketches in black on white. A dozen are included in the show.
In Australia, Rubinstein met her first husband, Edward Titus, a Polish-American expat writer and owner of a small publishing house. He helped launch her career through the wizardry of ad copy and a strategy of turning her into an expert on the science of beauty.
Rubinstein was lucky after going into business in Paris and London, then launching in New York in 1915, a year into World War I, Klein said. She arrived in the wake of two revolutionary movements: the march of avant-garde art and the suffrage movement.
“It was a fortuitous convergence of forces, and cosmetics became a metaphor, ” Klein said. “That was her genius.”
The fact that she was Jewish, he said, helped along her awareness of “otherness” and perhaps factored into her diverse tastes in art, chunky jewelry she wore in great doses as “armor” and the desire to encourage women as individuals rather than any one ideal, unlike her WASPish competitor Elizabeth Arden.
Lindy Woodhead, who wrote about their archrivalry in her 2003 book “War Paint, ” said Madame was riskier than Arden in business — and life.
“She just instinctively had that It factor. She knew how to mix ingredients and she inspired a fear factor in women that basically went: If you use my skin cream you will not get wrinkles, ” Woodhead said Tuesday from London.
Suzanne Slesin, Rubinstein’s step-granddaughter, said Madame’s magic was in the mix when it came to art, style and design. She placed seemingly disparate objects together: a classical marble bust with an African Fang mask.
“She had no models in her mind to hold her back, ” Slesin said. “She didn’t worry too much about what people thought of her.”
It took Rubinstein 20 years in New York to open a salon on tony Fifth Avenue. In 1941, she had her eye on a Park Avenue triplex but was turned down, told the prestigious building did not rent to Jews, Klein said.
“She told her accountants or whoever the advisers were to buy the building at any cost, ” he said. “And that’s what they did.” The dollar figure is lost to history.
She had two boys with Titus before they divorced. She wed again in 1938, this time to a Georgian prince, Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia. The public ate it up as she added “princess” to her resume. Rubinstein was devastated by his death in 1956 but carried on in business until the end.
At her death in 1965, estimates of her wealth varied up to $60 million. Her brand is now owned by L’Oreal and her products sold in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
If You Go…
HELENA RUBINSTEIN: BEAUTY IS POWER: Oct. 31-March 22 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave., New York, (212)423-3200. Open Friday to Tuesday 11 a.m.-5:45 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m.-8 p.m., closed Wednesday. The exhibition will travel to the Boca Raton Museum of Art for display April 21 through July 12.