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Tamara de Lempicka

A symbol of female empowerment

I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don‘t apply to those who live on the fringe.

Nicknamed “The Baroness with a Brush,” Tamara de Lempicka was known for her self-portraits and paintings of women rendered in a distinctively chic, Art Deco style. Her artworks feature stylized subjects clothed in seductive textures and bathed in a flattering, soft-toned light. Her figures emanate a certain feminine power and sensuality and celebrate the independence and liberation of 1920s women.

Portrait of the artist

Tamara de Lempicka was born Tamara Gurnick-Gorzka in 1898 in Warsaw Poland (then part of the Russian empire). As the daughter of a successful Russian attorney and a Polish socialite, she was raised in a world of privilege. After her mother and father divorced, her wealthy grandmother spoiled her with designer clothes and travel, and by age 14, she was attending school in Lausanne, Switzerland, while she vacationed in St. Petersburg with her Aunt Stephanie, who was married to a millionaire banker.

Her first attempt at being an artist was around the age of 12. Her mother had commissioned an established local artist to paint her daughter’s portrait, but the young girl, bored by the act of posing, was convinced she could do a better job. Taking the artist’s pastels, she instructed her younger sister Adrienne to pose and painted her portrait to great astonishment of her family. Although the artwork hasn’t survived, and maybe the story is slightly apocryphal, it showcases de Lempicka’s strong self-confidence, as well as her desire to have the agency of a creator rather than to be stuck in the passive role of subject. It also signaled a clear irreverence for her male ‘superiors’.

Tunique rose

Soon after Russia and Germany declared war in 1914, she fell in love with the most desired bachelor in Warsaw, a lawyer named Taduesz Lempicki. Two years later, they were married. Her banker uncle provided the dowry, and Lempicki, who had no money of his own, was delighted to marry his beautiful l6-year-old girl. However, their happiness didn’t last long as only a year later Taduesz was arrested by the Bolsheviks, and Tamara had to employ her good looks to charm the necessary officials to free him. The couple then made the radical decision to flee to Paris.

Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Like other exiled White Russians, they arrived in Paris with no money, having abandoned their possessions. They now had a child as well, Kizette. Tadeusz Lempicki remained unemployed, and years of deprivation followed in which Tamara herself became determined to succeed as a professional artist. She studied art at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and worked day and night to develop her own distinctive style. Her most influential mentor in this process was the painter André Lhote, an advocate of a softer, gentler form of cubism. Later she wrote:

There are no miracles, there is only what you make.

Maternité, 1922
Female nude sketch, c.1923

In preparation for her first major exhibition in Milan, in 1925, de Lempicka quickly painted 28 paintings. Her hard work paid off, and she soon started showing her work in some of the most exclusive galleries in Europe. She thrived, as she developed her highly stylized technique, which was inspired by Renaissance art she’d seen on her travels through Italy as a teenager, but simultaneously influenced by neo-cubism, futurism, and Art Deco. Lempicka’s work brings to mind French neo-classicism but also incorporates vital elements of modernity – cinematic lighting, futuristic metropolitan backdrops, and advertisement-like composition.

My goal, was never to copy, but to create a new style, bright, luminous colours and to scent out elegance in my models.

Young lady with gloves, 1929

Her take on Deco shows an exotic and glamorous Paris that epitomized her living and painting style. Around this time, she would travel back and forth between the Ritz Hotel in Paris and the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, socializing with — and painting portraits of — writers, entertainers, artists, scientists, industrialists, and many of Eastern Europe‘s exiled nobility. Among others, she could count Queen Elizabeth of Greece, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and the Italian poet-prince Gabriele d’Annunzio among her sitters.

Portrait de Madame Allan Bott, 1930
Portrait de Madame Bush, 1929

Her daughter later recounted how de Lempicka had a “killer instinct”. She was passionately determined and had a great feeling for self-promotion. With her polished social skills, her Greta Garbo looks, and some magnificent outfits donated by Paris couturiers, such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, de Lempicka became a memorable figure of the Parisian social scene.

Portrait of the artist, 1931-33

Enthralled in this lavish lifestyle, de Lempicka took part in a series of scandalous affairs with both men and women, gaining a reputation for her unrestrained libido and an almost predatory manner. She attended “women only” afternoons held by the American poet Natalie Barney (a figure credited with inspiring one of the seminal queer novels of all time, The Well of Loneliness by Radcliffe Hall), and became friends with Vita Sackville-West (the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando).* Her impressive work ethic and hunger for recognition combined with her ‘shameless’ lifestyle quickly made de Lempicka herself a symbol of women’s liberation.

Le Rêve, 1927
Tamara paints Tadeusz, 1928

There is one single image that notably encapsulates this, a work that is considered the epitome of Art Deco, her self-portrait Tamara in the Green Bugatti (1929). When exhibiting at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, fashion journalists from Harper’s Bazaar spotted her work. It was around this time that she was commissioned by German fashion magazine, Die Dame, to paint the iconic self-portrait. De Lempicka depicted herself at the wheel of a green Bugatti racing car, wearing a leather helmet, long white gloves, and wrapped in a silk scarf. In reality, the artist just owned a rather small yellow Renault—but the painting captures the imagination, as well as her beauty, fierce independence, and wealth.

Tamara in the Green Bugatti, 1929

In the late 1920s, de Lempicka also acquired her most important patrons, Doctor Pierre Boucard and his wife. Boucard had become an avid modernist and already owned several de Lempicka nudes, including some of most explicit lesbian paintings. 

Les deux amies, 1923

He offered her a two-year contract to paint portraits of himself, his wife, and daughter. De Lempicka’s portraits of Madame Boucard, showcase her expertise knowledge on textiles, jewelry, hairstyles, as well as the cut and material of a garment. Her sitter is posed like a Renaissance courtesan — a figure of power, with something of a brutal allure. Dr. Boucard on the other hand, was, as men were around that time, painted in a grand format with something of a slick strictness — an intimidating, glamourous, and authoritarian figure. After all, art critic Fiona McCarthy described de Lempicka as “an artist of the Fascist super world”. Her portraits can clearly be linked to the "call to order" movement, the return to monumental realism in European art.

Portrait of a man (or portrait of Mr. Tadeusz), 1928
Portrait of Mm. Boucard, 1931

As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s the world slowly moved towards the Second World War. In 1933, the artist had remarried Baron Raoul Kuffner, the owner of vast estates donated to his family by Emperor Franz-Josef. When the war did break out, Lempicka and her new husband fled to the US, to Hollywood to be exact, where she would become the "Favorite Artist of the Hollywood Stars". Shows of her work were organized at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York, the Courvoisier Galleries in San Francisco, and the Milwaukee Institute of Art, but did not have the success she had hoped for. In 1943, The Baron and Tamara decided to move to New York City, where, she tried her hand at abstract expressionism. She also expanded her subject matter to include still lifes, and in 1960 began to use a palette knife instead of her smooth earlier brushwork, sometimes even reworking earlier pieces in this new style. Unfortunately, these efforts did not revive her earlier success and she was soon reduced to the role of a chic curiosity, ‘the painting baroness’. In 1974, after the death of her husband, de Lempicka decided to move to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she later passed away, practically forgotten by the world, at the age of 82.

The artist at work

It was only after her death, in the late 1960s that there was a resurgence of interest in Art Deco. A retrospective of her work was held at the Luxembourg Gallery in Paris in 1972 and her early Art Deco paintings were once again being purchased. There was even a play, Tamara, that was inspired by her meeting with Gabriele D'Annunzio, which was first staged in Toronto and then ran in Los Angeles for no less than eleven years.

More recently, Hollywood celebrities have again started to show a serious interest in her work. Madonna is an avid admirer and collector of de Lempicka's work and has featured it in several of her music videos. Other notable collectors include actor Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand. Today, the artist herself has become an emblem of female empowerment, sexual liberation, and a leading example for women in the arts.

Among a hundred paintings, you could always recognize mine.

Portrait de la Duchesse de la Salle
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Sources: Wikipedia, The Guardian, delempicka.org, Dazed Digital, My Modern Met, Christies