Opening this coming weekend, the Discovering Dobell exhibition at Tarrawarra – and its accompanying book – features the artist’s controversial and recognisable portraits of Joshua Smith, Dame Mary Gilmore and, as we see here, Helena Rubinstein, alongside other vital strands of his output, introducing the creative achievements of this great Australian painter for a new generation of art lovers.
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 allusive personality. She 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 manufacturer – and richest women – in the world.
Helena Rubinstein was in her late eighties when William Dobell began work on her portrait. Having made several drawings in her Sydney hotel room, he went home to Wangi and dashed down five very small oil sketches on board, which conveyed her posture and skin pallor. He thought about them for some time, actually several months, then made an initial large portrait. There would be seven more in following years.
Sketch portrait of Helena Rubinstein 1957
What baffled the artist is how Rubinstein had alternate personalities she applied to situations as needed. In personal terms he found her shy and diffident, but in the workplace she was an efficient and resourceful businesswoman: the private and the public Helena Rubinstein were so different. How to convey this psychological complexity via a painting? Added to this paradox was her size, because Rubinstein was a tiny 4 feet 10 inches (147 centimetres), although by pressure of personality she seemed taller, even large-framed. The solution he reached was to contrast her delicate face (carefully made-up, eyes distracted, quite feminine) with her powerful hands (very large, professional looking, strong). Each informs us about the sitter’s temperament. Rubinstein may appear in different gowns, different jewellery, different interiors across the eight finished portraits; and Dobell’s summary brushwork alters as he presents the sitter as either vulnerable or tough, that is, as either a private person or canny executive. But underpinning all is the ‘character’ of face and of hands, and what they reveal about the inner life of Rubenstein and her strength.
Find out more about Discovering Dobell here.