Helena Rubinstein by Angus Trumble

Article | Jun 2023

Angus Trumble (1964–2022) was senior research fellow at the National Museum of Australia and a former director of the National Portrait Gallery. His book, Helena Rubinstein, is the story of the first global cosmetics empire, the fascinating woman who built it, and the past she preferred to leave behind. Read on for an extract.




The Sutherland Portrait


The last portrait of me done by Graham Sutherland,’ Helena Rubinstein wrote shortly before her death in 1965, ‘portrays me as an eagle-­eyed matriarch! At first I hated it, but with time the picture has grown on me. And I remind myself that some art critics have likened it to a Renaissance masterpiece . . . I had never seen myself in such a harsh light. Yet later, when they were exhibited at the Tate Gallery, although I scarcely recognised myself through Sutherland’s eyes, I had to admit that as paintings they were indeed masterpieces.’

A portrait in the Western tradition is a kind of paradox: the product of a fruitful collaboration between artist and subject, a likeness observed, given freely or, at times, guardedly, and fixed in time and space. Yet the portrait travels thereafter into the constantly evolving realms of memory, history and taste. From the day it is carried out of the artist’s studio, the portrait passes through cycles of reinterpretation, the original encounter seen in ever new light, often shifting to different countries and continents, none of which the artist or his subject could ever have envisaged. For the rest of their lives, both may also gradually diverge from that original encounter, opening up ever-greater temporal and physical distances between each of them and their portrait. Having begun its life as a likeness now, the portrait shifts that likeness back through an inexorably receding then. Sometimes, if for a while there is no physical distance – when, for example, the portrait hangs in the subject’s own house, or remains in the hands of the artist – the temporal distance only becomes the more apparent. At length, the portrait is bequeathed to an ever-­widening posterity, sometimes in light of growing fame, or else the gathering dusk of obscurity, or sometimes both at once.

Graham Sutherland was one of the most distinguished British artists of the 20th century. In his second volume of autobiography, Kenneth Clark described how Sutherland told him during World War II that in future he wanted to paint portraits, an ambition which, at the time, Clark greeted with scepticism, even bewilderment. Halfway through the calamitous 20th century, portraiture did not seem to be anywhere near the vanguard of contemporary British art. The most lionised mid-­century portrait painter was Augustus John OM RA. As president of the retardataire Royal Society of Portrait Painters in Carlton House Terrace, Augustus John seemed to belong to another, increasingly superannuated age. By mid-­century the tide seemed to have turned against portrait painting in Britain.

Sutherland at first made his reputation as a surrealist, and as a master of Pembrokeshire landscape, focusing on wild escarpments and the gnarled roots of ancient trees. Through Clark’s influence Sutherland was brought into the War Artists’ Scheme within the Ministry of Information, focusing mainly on bomb damage in London, tin-­mining in Cornwall, coal-mines, limestone quarries, and on documenting the damage inflicted by the Royal Air Force on German bomb depots in occupied France. None of these anticipated, any more than his pre-­war surrealism did, Sutherland’s determination to paint portraits.

Sutherland’s reputation, output and confidence grew steadily during the late 1940s and 1950s. His portraits of Somerset Maugham (1949, Tate) and Sir Winston Churchill (1954, destroyed) were among the most celebrated works of British contemporary art in the post-­war years. He went on to paint Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Sackville, Clark himself, Lord Goodman, Maximilian Egon zu Fürstenberg, Konrad Adenauer, Pierre Schlumberger, Baron Élie de Rothschild, and Daisy, the Hon. Mrs Reginald Fellowes. This is the company Rubinstein and her portrait by Sutherland were keeping in 1957. Sutherland was in 1960 appointed to the Order of Merit.

Recalling his earliest encounters with Rubinstein in England in 1956, when she was eighty-­three, just before she made her final journey to Australia and New Zealand, Graham Sutherland wrote to Patrick O’Higgins:

I have an acute ‘sense’ of her presence – even now – of the contained energy burning away behind the stillness. I sensed that she was suspicious of people and, in a curious way, even distrustful of herself – of her taste perhaps. My impression was strong in thinking that neither pictures, furniture nor objects meant more to her than a foil for electric, contained and strong vitality. She had fallen you will remember and the blue-­black of the bruises on her face might well have been maquillage! It was on the second visit that I discovered what to do, because at the time I was able to observe her buying – and bargaining – over a table-­full of costume jewellery by the gross and I drew her, unaware of my presence, in her Balenciaga dress, looking like an empress . . . showing that rare, almost deprecating, but enchanting smile; it gave me the material in which I was able to work. She was, in a word – magnificent – minute and monosyllabic, with the force of an Egyptian ruler. She had a good many self-­doubts and half-­yearnings for some other life, half-­glimpsed, which enabled her to say, ‘I could do without all my money. If I were suddenly poor again, I could live perfectly happily.’

Suspicious; distrustful of her own taste; bargaining over ‘costume jewellery by the gross’; empress; Egyptian ruler; ‘all my money’; ‘If I were suddenly poor again . . .’ Leaving aside the question as to how Sutherland might have formed the impression that Rubinstein ever had been poor, one that she herself had long been at pains to dispel – apparently with some justification – we shall return to the difficult and complex question of cliché and not even always encoded anti-­Semitism.

As Anthony Julius has written, the subtlest forms of anti-­Semitism in England and elsewhere have given rise to a sort of paranoia, to which he himself readily owns:

Jews succeed against the grain; there is a certain resistance to them that is rarely expressed, and never legislated. Anti-­Semitism in England breeds Jewish paranoia. You don’t see it coming; and when it’s gone you’re still not quite sure what it was. To understand what is going on in England, you need a very nuanced sense of the anti-­Semitic, one which overlaps with an Anglo-­Jewish self-­definition.

However, those subtle forms of anti-­Semitism also have a sinister tendency to seep, at times undetected, into the ostensibly positive estimation of Jewish subjects. ‘Part of the ambivalence of anti-­Semitism’, Julius goes on, ‘is that it slides into a certain kind of regard for Jews.’ It is a vital question, therefore, to ask: Is this what was going on, and is maybe still going on, in the encounter between Graham Sutherland and Helena Rubinstein? Indeed, does reading carefully for signs, for residues, of anti-­Semitism implicate us in the identification, the delineation, of ethnic and racial difference, which is in turn so obviously fraught with danger? There is no easy answer. Perhaps the best that can be said is that it is important to keep asking the question, to be aware that it exists, and to allow oneself to be troubled by it. Any careful examination of a Jewish life in history involves a degree of outside scrutiny of which Rubinstein, in this instance, had every reason to be wary, indeed suspicious; every reason to presume that it brought with it measures of not always latent hostility, ranging from the faint, the mild, even the unconscious, all the way to the positively lethal.


See the portrait of Helena Rubinstein HERE.

Author: Angus Trumble

Category: Business & management, Economics, Finance

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: La Trobe University Press

ISBN: 9781760644529

RRP: $34.99

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