Helena Rubinstein and Picasso: a story of unfinished portraits

Helena Rubinstein met Picasso for the first time in the 1930s. Despite buying several of the Spanish artist's paintings, Madame would have to wait 20 years before he took her portrait. But, by her death in 1965, she hadn't even seen the sketches. Their friendship was a strong but mysterious one; oscillating between extreme closeness and distance.

Meeting in sunshine

"Will there be a final shock in store when I eventually see my finished portrait by Picasso?" Madame wondered in 1964. It had already been ten years since she'd started posing for the famous painter, whom it had taken ten years to convince. But there would never be a finished version.

They had first met through Marie Cutolli, their mutual friend, and Madame's client. Cutolli invited Rubinstein on holiday to the Antibes, where the beauty pioneer and the artist rubbed shoulders several times. However, it took twenty years, and the persuasion of Marie, before Picasso would finally agree to paint her.

Between admiration and exasperation

With twenty preliminary sketches completed, Picasso refused to show them to Madame. Over the years she would send him old photographs of herself, presents and letters begging him to show her, but he refused. Frustrated but refusing to give up, Madame continued insisting to see the sketches right up until her death, without success. Picasso died eight years later, having still not finished the portrait so dreamed of by Helena Rubinstein. The chase was over.

It is said that, when Helena Rubinstein was posing for Picasso, he told her he was "taking some notes", to which she replied "Will they make a pretty portrait?" "Who said I was doing a portrait?" the painter apparently responded.

What stopped the painter from showing the sketches to his model? The rumor went round that Picasso only chose models who inspired him, and never painted in front of them. The archives of the Picasso Museum in Paris hold several letters sent from Helena to the painter, and provide a means of further understanding their enigmatic relationship.

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