HELENA RUBINSTEIN 1957
oil on composition board
95.4 × 95.6 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1964
Contact TarraWarra Museum of ArtCopyright
© Sir William Dobell Art Foundation
The cosmetics manufacturer Helena Rubinstein became an obsession for William Dobell. He fretted over her portrait for six years, producing many versions in an effort to portray what he considered an elusive personality.
Helena Rubinstein had led a chequered and colourful career. Having arrived in Australia from Poland in 1902, and speaking almost no English, she went to live with relatives who ran a store in the rural Victorian town of Coleraine. Affected by Australia’s dry heat, Rubinstein tried to make a moisturiser by experimenting with lanolin, which was in plentiful supply in the sheep district. Within twelve months she was selling homemade beauty creams to an expanding clientele; a Collins Street cosmetics salon opened in Melbourne the following year, then she expanded to Sydney. Leaving her sister running Australian operations, Rubinstein moved to London in 1908 and progressively became one of the leading cosmetics manufacturers – and richest women – in the world.
In personal terms Dobell found Rubinstein shy and reserved, but in the workplace she was an efficient and resourceful businesswoman: her private and public faces were so different. This paradox was amplified by her size. Rubinstein was a tiny 4ft 10in (147cm), although by force of personality she seemed bigger, a strong presence. Dobell’s solution was to contrast her delicate face (carefully made-up, eyes distracted, quite feminine) with powerful hands (very large, professional looking, strong). Each informs us about the sitter’s temperament.