Discover the story of Helena Rubinstein and her role in shaping the modern beauty industry. Read More
As a businesswoman and arts patron, Helena Rubinstein helped break down the status quo of taste by blurring the boundaries between commerce, art, fashion, beauty, and design. Her innovative business and style helped usher in a modern notion of beauty, democratized and accessible to all. Beauty Is Power, the first museum exhibition to focus on the cosmetics entrepreneur, will reunite selections from Rubinstein’s famed collection, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Kahlo, and Nadelman, as well as her iconic collection of African and Oceanic sculpture, miniature period rooms, jewelry, and fashion.
Helena Rubinstein rose from modest beginnings in small town Jewish Poland. Born in 1872, she came of age during a period when social reforms were beginning to challenge conventions — whether domestic, economic, or sartorial. By her death at ninety-two in 1965, Rubinstein was in her seventh decade of business. Her cosmetics empire extended to four continents, and she had become a global icon of female entrepreneurship, as well as a leader in art, fashion, and philanthropy. She was arguably the first modern self-made woman magnate.
At the turn of the century the use of cosmetics – associated with the painted faces of actresses and prostitutes – was widely frowned upon by the middle class. A model of independence, Rubinstein rejected this, producing and marketing the means for ordinary women to transform themselves. Her business challenged the myth of beauty and taste as inborn, or something to which only the wealthy were entitled.
As young women began to join the work force, they had money to spend. The fashion and interior decoration industries flourished, and art and culture began to adapt to modern feminine sensibilities.
And feminine taste included makeup; if latter-day feminist debates have focused on cosmetics as objectifying women, they were seen in the early twentieth century as a means of asserting female autonomy. By encouraging women to define themselves as self-expressive individuals, Rubinstein contributed to their empowerment.
Today we take that subjectivity for granted, but the sense of individuality Rubinstein fostered was new and profound. She advocated exceptionality in a world that discouraged nonconformity. She offered women the ideal of self-invention – a fundamental principle of modernity. One’s identity, she asserted, is a matter of choice.
The exhibition is organized by Mason Klein, Curator, with Rebecca Shaykin, Leon Levy Assistant Curator.