William DOBELL, Sketch portrait of Helena Rubinstein Enlarge 1 /1

William DOBELL

Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia 1899 – Lake Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia 1970

  • England, Europe 1929-38

Sketch portrait of Helena Rubinstein 1957 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, enamel on compositionboard enamel on hardboard

Primary Insc: signed,u.l., oil,'Dobell'. not dated
Dimensions: 15.1 h x 14.2 w cm framed (overall) 401 h x 398 w x 50 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1976
Accession No: NGA 76.536
Image rights: With permission of Sir William Dobell Art Foundation.

William Dobell was drawn to people with an inherent sense of self. One such individual who came to fascinate him was Polish cosmetics magnate, Helena Rubinstein (1870–1965). Although Rubinstein only sat for Dobell twice, he made eight paintings of her in six years.

In this oil sketch for a major portrait which won the £1500 Australian Women’s Weekly Portrait Prize in 1957 we see Rubinstein in profile, in a decidedly posed seated position, with right hand on hip and the left resting in her lap—all the better to show off the jewel-encrusted bracelet and ring. Her dress is a plain wrap-around garment, whereas in the final portrait both head and body are turned to the right and the dress fabric richly patterned.

Talking about Rubinstein, Dobell reveals a delightful ambiguity about his sitter—finding her at once enthralling yet pitiful. ‘She was a very sad woman for all her millions. She still liked to show off her things as though she’d just been given them … For instance, every now and then she’d disappear and come out with another dress: “Would you like to paint me in this?”—all over her arm. And honestly, over the arms of such an old woman it looked like a scene in a gypsy fair.’[1]

Born Chaja Rubinstein in Kraków, Poland, Helena Rubinstein came to Australia in 1894, finding a ready market for the pots of face cream she brought in her luggage. Although not the first to discover the skin beautifying properties of lanolin (extracted from sheep’s wool), she had an abundant supply where she lived in the Western Districts of  Victoria. To disguise the pungency of ‘sheep’s grease’ in her skin creams Rubinstein experimented with lavender, pine bark and waterlilies. Her products were so-called medical formulas and ointments, reputedly sourced from the Carpathian Mountains. Rubinstein went on to open salons all over the world, effectively forming the first multinational cosmetics company and, in the process, becoming one of the world’s richest women.

James Gleeson says of Dobell’s late portraits that ‘the style took its cue from the subject’. He goes on to emphasise that, ‘one only has to look at a few square inches of painted sleeve to know what sort of person is wearing it’[2]. In this dramatic sketch we sense the artist’s struggle to reconcile in paint both the multi-millionaire businesswoman and the complex individual behind the mask.

Katherine Russell

[1] V Freeman, Dobell on Dobell, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1970, pp 66–7.

[2] J Gleeson, William Dobell, revised edn, World of Art Library series, Thames & Hudson London, 1969, p 189.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010