Helena Rubinstein, New York (commissioned from the artist)
Robert Descharnes & Gilles Neret, Salvador Dalí, vol. I, Cologne, 1993, no. 795, illustrated in color p. 351 (as dating from 1942-43)
Robert Descharnes, Salvador Dalí, The Work, The Man, New York, 1997, illustrated in color p. 281
Dalí (exhibition catalogue), The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 2005, mentioned p. 501
Dalí's riveting depiction of the legendary Helena Rubinstein (1870-1965) is among the artist's most accomplished portraits. When Dalí painted this work in 1943, Rubinstein was the world's richest woman, having single-handedly established an eponymous multi-million dollar cosmetics company that transformed the industry. As the world's first self-made female millionaire, Rubinstein was a pioneer among captains of industry, achieving a level of success that was hitherto unimaginable for a woman. But as a product of her generation, Rubinstein ironically preferred to be addressed by the noble title and surname she inherited from her Georgian husband. That duality of persona is addressed in Dalí's title for this extraordinary portrait.
Dalí had known Rubinstein since the early 1930s, and she was part of the elite establishment that welcomed the artist when he arrived to New York in 1940 at the outbreak of war in France. In 1942, she commissioned Dalí to create a group of three major murals to decorate the dining room of her 36-room triplex on Park Avenue. A year later, he painted this portrait, featuring his patron as a small element of a larger environment. Unlike typical portrait commissions, Rubinstein's face accounts for only a tiny portion of the canvas -- a compositional allusion, perhaps, to her role as the keystone of a colossal industry.
Rubinstein was seventy-three years old in 1943, but Dalí has rendered a more youthful representation of her in this picture that bears a close resemblance to his own wife, Gala. This choice reinforces the Surrealist idea of a non-literal portrait, which relies on symbolism and atmospheric effects to convey information about the subject. In this way, Rubenstein's youthfulness represents the immortality of her character as well as the accomplishments of a cosmetics pioneer. The entire scene is reminiscent of Renaissance depictions of the mythical Andromeda, chained to the side of a rock (fig. 1); yet, Dalí provides us with a revised version of that story, depicting a woman of great strength and a formidable opponent to the demons of the modern world. As was typical of Dalí's best work, there is even an erotic undertone, suggested by the tiny figures of Venus and Cupid on the rocks below.
Princess Arthchild Gourielli-Helena Rubinstein was painted during the period when Dalí was, "claiming to have discovered for the first time in his life the real way to paint; in other words, with over- and underpainting. For him, this is infinitely more subtle in its tonalities than the pictures painted before" (Robert Descharnes, Dalí, l'oeuvre et l'homme, Lausanne, 1984, p. 142). This discovery of the finer techniques of painting gives the present work its striking luminosity and the precision of a Renaissance masterpiece, from the crests of the minute breakers to the flawlessly rendered textures of the sheer rock faces. Clearly, this was the zenith of Dalí's technical virtuosity, when the fruits of his prodigious subconscious could be represented with pristine detail.
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