Tamara de Lempicka was one of the exponents of the Art Deco movement which emerged during the 1920’s alongside Cubism, Dadaism, Futurism, and Surrealism. Lempicka, although a Polish-Russian aristocrat, lived a quite controversial life for being associated with the bohemians, marrying at an early age, and her almost celebrity status. She was the favorite portrait artist of many Hollywood stars at the time and thus also known as the “Baroness with a brush”.
Tamara de Lempicka was a decorative artist who painted for glamorous people of the entertainment industry in North America and Europe. She had always lived a fashionable life and worked with various dukes and duchesses in her social circle. Even the most esteemed salons of her generation took notice of her works and was granted the opportunity to do her own art shows. However, some art critics viewed her “perverse Ingrism” as one of the flaws in her art. On the other hand, it could only mean that her works are comparable to Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, especially when talking about Lempicka’s Group of Four Nudes of 1925.
Tamara de Lempicka is one of those famous artists whose achievements are often overlooked because of the scandals and controversies they experienced. To be fair her paintings changed the landscape of modern art by introducing new techniques and methods that shaped Art Deco. She particularly pioneered a portrait style that was meant to liberate and celebrate the independence of women. Her female figures were structured by a combination of Cubism and traditional Art Deco techniques. This method is characterized by its small geometric patterns painted in bold colors.
Therefore, one could easily recognize Lempicka’s work because of this distinct and original portrait style. Some examples of her most compelling works included The Musician (1929), Le Reve (1927), Polssons (1958), Autoportrait (1925), Adam and Eve, Les Deux Amies, Dormeuse, and portrait of a Young Girl in a Green Dress.
Tamara de Lempicka was born in May 16, 1898 with a real given name Maria Gorska. She was raised in Warsaw, Poland to a wealthy family, with parents Malwina Dekler, a socialite, and Boris Gurwik-Gorski a successful lawyer for a trading company. Tamara was the middle child in the family and she received her primary education from a school in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Studying in Switzerland allowed her to visit her grandmother every winter vacation to Italy. At age of 12, her grandmother introduced her to Italian Renaissance paintings and it is safe to assume that it was love at first sight for her given the fact that she ended up pursuing a career in visual arts. One of the significant events in Tamara’s younger years was the divorce of her parents in 1912 and she was sent to live with her Aunt Stefa in Russia. Her mother then got remarried, which made her all the more determined to start a life on her own.
At age 15, Tamara de Lempicka met the man she was keen to marry. She then married the man, Tadeusz Lempecki in St. Petersburg three years later. Tadeusz was however a lawyer who came from a working class family. When the Russian Revolution of 1917 broke out Tadeuz was arrested and was only released after Tamara bailed him out. The two moved to Paris to seek refuge but lived in poverty together with their first child. This inspired Tamara to go back to painting and started making money out of it.
In Paris, her sister Adrienne Gorska helped her in designing the Lempicki’s flat inspired by Art Deco style. The furniture was designed with chrome-plated motifs while architect Robert Mallet-Stevens designed the entire flat. This somehow influenced the emerging Tamara to develop her own bold artistic style which was commonly called “soft cubism” at the time.
Lempicka’s style then improved, having been attending the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, from soft cubism to showing traces of Maurice Denis’ synthetic cubism. Her art became distinctive which revolutionized the Art Deco movement. During this period she thought that several impressionist painters drew poorly and Picasso’s art was destructive. Therefore, she thought hers would be the exact opposite of it all; clean, original and elegant.
As a result of infusing these artistic influences, De Lempicka painted the Autoportrait. The painting was a showcase of her skills in deconstructing the previous pictorial content, in which decadence and freedom are usually highlighted as themes. Autoportrait, wherein the female figure is driving a green Bugatti, looks empowering and self-imposing as the woman seems to challenge the male gaze with her assertive poise. Art critics believe that this has to be representative of the 1920’s Parisian glamour and modernity. The painter’s intentions and ambitions positively matched the advent of technological age.
It is also worth mentioning that the 1920’s was considered to be a time of economic and social transformations in Paris. The fashion-forward de Lempicka was however a classicist in her taste, having exposed to Italian Renaissance paintings since her younger years. And having enough background on the traditional painting helped her develop new ideas for her modern-age painting style which was a combination of traditional portraiture and Art Deco. Therefore, the Autoportrait painting of 1925 was rather a Renault and more than just a Bugatti in emerald green coating.
In 1925, Tamara de Lempicka held her first art show in Milan, Italy. The event was sponsored by Count Emmanuele Castelbarco. In the show, the artist exhibited 28 paintings which she completed within six months giving her a timeline of three weeks to complete one portrait. In 1927 her market value increased significantly to 50,000 French francs per portrait. Count Castelbarco had also introduced her to Gabriele d’Annunzio, a famous writer.
Gabriele d’Annunzio would become her prospective client but failed to secure a commission after visiting the writer to his villa twice. Nevertheless she was already gaining her spot in the limelight at the time, in fact, the Exposition International des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux had given her the first prize award for her Kizette on the Balcony portrait in 1927.
Writing about Tamara De Lempicka’s autobiography wouldn’t be complete without looking back at the roaring twenties of Paris. During this period she became inclined to take part in bohemian life by engaging in queer activities and debauchery. She had affairs with both genders, which was very out of ordinary at the time. Her subject matter became focused on nude portraits and studies told via formal and narrative elements, with a goal to show how seduction and sexual desire affect people. Needless to say, she became associated with queer women such as Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis, and Colette. At one point she met a night club entertainer named Suzy Solidor, whose portrait De Lempicka painted later. Her bohemian lifestyle did not do her any good marriage-wise because her husband eventually quit it and left her in 1927.
Another controversy that the Polish painter had to endure was the accusations of neglecting her daughter, Kizette. She rarely visited her daughter when Kizette was at the boarding school and thus the child was often left in custody with her maternal grandmother. Even the Christmas season wasn’t spared from de Lempicka’s busy life in 1929 when she decided to spend the holidays in the US to complete some projects. Kizette’s grandmother was so mad that she destroyed Tamara’s large collection of hats by fire.
However neglectful De Lempicka might be to her daughter, Kizette had always been a major source of inspiration for her portraits from 1927 to 1950’s. Some of her later works the female figure appeared to look like Kizette, too.
Baron Raoul Kuffner von Dioszeg came into contact with Tamara de Lempicka in 1928. He visited her workshop and instantly hired her to paint the Baron’s mistress. As soon as she finished the painting, the Baron fell for de Lempicka and supported her career all the way. In 1929 she went to the US to complete a commission by Rufus Bush and attend an exhibition conducted at the Carnegie Institute.
In 1929, De Lempicka’s money on the bank lost to the stock market crash. However, the financial crisis had little impact on her overall for she was employed by the highest royalties of Spain during this period. She became in-demand more than ever and in 1933, she was asked to move to Chicago to foment a collaboration with Willem de Kooning, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Santiago Martinez Delgado.
Another pivotal moment for de Lempicka was when she married Baron Kuffner in 1934 in Zurich. Kuffner helped her get out of the messy bohemian life and provided her the financial stability that he needed all throughout. She became relevant to her inner elite circle once again. De Lempicka was a great business partner to her husband for she told him to transfer his money to Switzerland and sell most of his estates, as the country was on the verge of entering into another World War.
Towards the latter part of the 1930’s, de Lempicka was in New York arranging a series of art shows. She traveled with her husband around the US and made Beverly Hills, CA as their home base. It was during this period when she became the go-to portrait artist of several Hollywood stars like George Sanders, Walter Pidgeon, and Tyrone Power.
As for her artistic style, it evolved from Picasso-esque to Salvador Dali like. The painting Key and Hand of 1941 would be the perfect example of this development. She expanded her views of horizon to include abstract and still-life portrait painting as well. She was also one of the first artists to have used knife as a paint brush, but the outcome of this new method failed to receive as many positive feedback as she did years ago. Additionally, De Lempicka would remain intact with her social circles and glamourous lifestyle traveling between US and Europe during her later years.
On November 1961, Baron Kuffner died of heart attack while on his way to New York. The Art Deco proponent was left devastated and sought the comfort of the world by traveling worldwide by ship. After making a series of around-the-world travels, she finally settled in Houston, Texas to stay with Kizette and her husband, Harold Foxhall. Kizette, after all, proved to be valuable in her career by becoming her business manager but the daughter only suffered from Tamara’s manipulative behavior.
In her old age, de Lempicka felt as though her work was inferior to her early ones while at the same time, rationalizing that people of the ‘70’s lacked the taste that inspired her to paint in the beginning. She couldn’t bear to see her art fade into the limelight so she decided to move to Cuernavaca, Mexico to live with aging aristocrats and artists.
Three years before Tamara’s death, Kizette cared for her. The daughter looked after Tamara until she passed away on March 18, 1980. She wished to be cremated and have her ashes dispersed around Popocatepetl volcano by Kizette and Victor Manuel Contreras.