A return to the Rubinstein cartonnage

A year ago, I wrote about some cartonnage that we received as a donation from Helena Rubinstein back in 1953. I started working on it but after realizing what a complex project it was going to be, decided to save it for one of our graduate interns to work on (I like to think we save the best stuff for them, and sometimes best = complicated). We didn’t have to wait too long, since this fall we were joined by Eve Mayberger, a 4th year NYU intern who is with us for the academic year, and she was happy to take on the cartonnage as one of her many projects.

One of the reasons the cartonnage is in the lab is because it’s attached to a really ugly old mount, which is no longer providing sufficient support. To remind you, here is what it looked like when it entered the lab:

Cartonnage pieces secured to a wooden mount painted blue

5 separate cartonnage pieces secured to a wooden mount painted blue (before treatment)

Not only do we want to get the cartonnage off of this old mount, but the way the pieces are attached to the mount complicates examination and our understanding of their materials and construction. Basically, this old mount isn’t doing the object any favors, and there’s not much we can do with the object while it’s on the mount.

Eve has spent some time documenting and examining the cartonnage pieces in the Artifact Lab and today she decided to bite the bullet and actually start removing them from the mount. She started with the chest piece (the uppermost piece in the image above). It was secured to the mount primarily through 2 large screws and several smaller nails. Just a few minutes ago, Eve calmly removed the last of the hardware and we were finally able to free this piece from the mount – hurrah!

Eve examining the backside of the cartonnage, recently freed from the old mount, seen on the right side of this photo.

Eve examining the backside of the cartonnage, recently freed from the old mount

Here is a detail of what the back looks like:

View of the reverse of the cartonnage chest piece, after removal from the mount.

View of the reverse of the cartonnage chest piece, after removal from the mount.

Of course now that we can see the other side, we have even more questions about what was done to this piece historically versus what is part of its original construction. Eve will continue to examine this piece and do some more research before beginning the treatment. We will provide updates as she proceeds.

More on Madame Rubinstein

Helena Rubinstein built her life and her wealth on beauty, so it should come as no surprise that she was attracted to this stunning Ptolemaic cartonnage funerary mask and it’s related pieces, which we are working on in the Artifact Lab.

Rubinstein was known as a great art collector (she bought pieces by the truckload, according to this article in the New Yorker) and she decorated her many homes with modern art, as well as artwork and antiquities from all over the world (she amassed an especially large collection of African art). When I found out that these cartonnage pieces in our collection had once been in the possession of the Madame, as she preferred to be called, I was hoping that I’d be able to find a photo of them on display in one of her homes.

Rubinstein, photographed in 1951, with some selections from her Africa and Oceania collection on display

Rubinstein, photographed in 1951, with some pieces from her Africa and Oceania collection. Image from “Over the Top: Helena Rubinstein: Extraordinary style, beauty, art, fashion” by Suzanne Slesin, 2003.

While I found many photos showing the interior of her homes, I didn’t catch a glimpse of the funerary mask in any of them. And it’s possible that she never had it, or the rest of the cartonnage, on display at all.

Based on letters found in our Archives, I found out that we ended up receiving these pieces as a gift from Mme. Rubinstein through the Carlebach Gallery in New York. The gallery owner, Julius Carlebach, acted as the intermediary for the donation, which was given to the museum while Dr. Rudolf Anthes was Curator of the Egyptian Section, under the directorship of Froelich Rainey. In his letter offering the cartonnage pieces to the museum, Carlebach noted that he was sorry that Madame Rubinstein had no further information about them.

But I did find something interesting in Froelich Rainey’s thank you note to Mme. Rubinstein.

UPMAA_Rainey_Page_2The letter is a little confusing because he refers to the mask as a “mummy portrait,” but I’m sure he’s talking about the cartonnage. As you can see, he mentions that the lower section would be included in the museum’s television program “What in the World”. “What in the World” was a Peabody Award-winning television program, where Rainey moderated a panel of experts trying to identity artifacts, while viewers were given clues to the answer (it ran for 14 years and by the early 1960s it was one of the oldest programs on television!). The episode featuring the cartonnage aired on May 23, 1953.

Unfortunately, as far as we know, only a few episodes of this show have survived, not including this 1953 episode. Those that we do have are now digitized and on the museum’s YouTube channel (follow this link to view them). Is there any way we might be able to find the one featuring Mme. Rubinstein’s gift? It seems unlikely, but I’d love to think that it is possible.

In the meantime, we’ll be doing our own investigations on these pieces right here in the Artifact Lab, and we’ll report on the blog as we learn more and make decisions on treatment.

Special thanks to Alex Pezzati, our Senior Archivist, for his help in locating these documents.

A gift from a late, great, beauty magnate

Some of the newest objects to come into the Artifact Lab are pieces of cartonnage which are related to this beautiful funerary mask, currently on exhibit in our Upper Egyptian gallery:

53-20-1A A funerary mask made of gilded cartonnage, currently on display in our Upper Egyptian gallery.

53-20-1A A funerary mask made of gilded cartonnage, currently on display in our Upper Egyptian gallery

Here are the pieces of cartonnage currently in the lab:

53.20.1bt01_compAnd here is a detail of the chest covering, adhered to fine linen with a black resinous material:

53.20.1bt03_chestcoveringAll of the pieces are unfortunately nailed down to the painted wooden (contemporary) support below. I’ve been working on documenting the cartonnage and getting the nails out, so that I can better evaluate the condition of these pieces.

I also have been doing some background research on these pieces, and found that, unlike most of the objects that I work on in the lab which are from excavations or which were collected early on in the museum’s history, this cartonnage assemblage was donated to us by cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein. Rubinstein, who is known for her wildly successful brand of cosmetics, and who, when she died, was one of the world’s richest women, was also an art collector. I’m not sure exactly how she wound up buying these pieces and then how they ended up here at the museum, but I’m heading over to the Archives now to see what I might learn there. More on this soon!