Saturday 10 March 2012

Tamara de Lempicka - part 1

This is part 1 of a 2-part post on the works of painter Tamara de Lempicka (1898 – 1980). Lempick was born Maria Górska into a wealthy and prominent family in 1898 in Warsaw, Poland. In 1912 her parents divorced and she went to live with a wealthy in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 1916 she married Tadeusz Lempicki (1888–1951). In 1917, during the Russian Revolution, Tadeusz was arrested by the Bolsheviks; After several weeks, with the help of the Swedish consul, she secured his release. They travelled to Copenhagen, then London, and finally to Paris, to where Maria's family had also escaped, along with numerous upper-class Russian refugees. The architect Adrienne Gorska designed her Paris apartment and studio in the Art Deco style, complete with chrome-plated furniture.

Her distinctive artistic style developed quickly and epitomized the cool yet sensual side of the Art Deco movement. For her, Picasso “embodied the novelty of destruction”. She thought that many of the Impressionists drew badly and employed "dirty" colours.

For her first major show, in Milan, Italy in 1925, under the sponsorship of Count Emmanuele Castelbarco, de Lempicka painted 28 new works in just six months. She was soon the most fashionable portrait painter of her generation among the haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy, painting duchesses and grand dukes and socialites. Through her network of friends, she was able to display her paintings in the most elite salons of the era. De Lempicka was criticized and admired for her “perverse Ingrism” – referring to her modern restatement of the master Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, as displayed in her work Group of Four Nudes, 1925:

1925 Group of Four Nudes

 In 1925, she painted her iconic work Auto-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) for the cover of the German fashion magazine Die Dame.

1925 Auto-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti)

 As summed up by the magazine Auto-Journal in 1974 “the self-portrait of Tamara de Lempicka is a real image of the independent woman who asserts herself. Her hands are gloved, she is helmeted, and inaccessible; a cold and disturbing beauty ( through which ) pierces a formidable being—this woman is free!”. De Lempicka won her first major award in 1927, first prize at the Exposition Internationale de Beaux Arts in Bordeaux, France for her portrait of her daughter Kizette on the Balcony.

1927 Kizette On The Balcony

 In Paris during the 1920s Lempicka was part of the bohemian life: she knew Picasso, Jean Cocteau and André Gide. Famous for her libido, she was bisexual, and her affairs with both men and women were carried out in ways that were scandalous at the time. She also became involved with Suzy Solidor, a night club singer whom she later painted. Her husband eventually tired of their arrangement and abandoned her in 1927. They were divorced in 1931.

1933 Portrait of Suzy Solidor

 In 1928, her longtime patron the Baron Raoul Kuffner von Diószeg visited her studio and commissioned her to paint his mistress. De Lempicka finished the portrait, then took the mistress' place in the Baron's life. She travelled to the United States for the first time in 1929, to paint a commissioned portrait for Rufus Bush and to arrange a show of her work at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. The show went well but the money she earned was lost when the bank she used collapsed following the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

In 1933 she traveled to Chicago where she worked with Georgia O'Keeffe, Santiago Martínez Delgado and Willem de Kooning. Her social position was cemented when she married her lover, Baron Kuffner in 1934. In 1939 they started an "extended vacation" in the USA. She immediately arranged for a show of her work in New York, though the Baron and Baroness chose to settle in Beverly Hills, California, living in the former residence of Hollywood director King Vidor.

She became 'the baroness with a brush' and a favourite artist of Hollywood stars. Lempicka would visit the Hollywood stars on their studio sets, such as Tyrone Power, Walter Pidgeon, and George Sanders and they would come to her studio to see her at work. She did war relief work, like many others at the time; and she managed to get Kizette out of Nazi-occupied Paris, via Lisbon, in 1941. Some of her paintings of this time had a Salvador Dalí quality, as shown in Key and Hand, 1941:

1941 Key and Hand

 In 1943, the couple relocated to New York City. Even though she continued to live in style, her popularity as a society painter had diminished greatly. For a while, she continued to paint in her trademark style, although her range of subject matter expanded to include still lifes, and even some abstracts. Yet eventually she adopted a new style, using palette knife instead of brushes. Her new work was not well-received when she exhibited in 1962 at the Iolas Gallery. De Lempicka determined never to show her work again, and retired from active life as a professional artist. I think these later works are pretty dreadful, and there is not much point in featuring any here.

De Lempicka lived long enough, however, for the wheel of fashion to turn a full circle: before she died in 1980, a new generation discovered her art and greeted it with enthusiasm. A 1973 retrospective drew positive responses. At the time of her death, her early Art Deco paintings were being shown and purchased once again. A stage play inspired in part by her life ("Tamara") ran first in Toronto, then for eleven years in Los Angeles at the VFW Post (1984–1995) making it the longest running play in Los Angeles, and employing 240 actors over the life of the show. It was also subsequently produced at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York City. In 2005, actress and artist Kara Wilson performed Deco Diva, a one-woman stage play based on de Lempicka's life.

c1922 The Kiss

1923 Pespective

c1924 Double 47

1925 Portrait of Marquis Sommi

1925 Portrait of Prince Eristoff

1925 Portrait of the Duchess of La Salle

1925 Portrait of the Marquis d'Afflito

1925 The Model

1926 The Marquis D'Afflitto on a Staircase

1927 La Belle Rafaela

1927 Rafaela sur Fond Vert

1927 Young Ladies

1928 In The Middle Of Summer

1928 Nude with Dove

1928 Portrait of Nanade Herrera

1928 Portrait of a Man or Mr Tadeusz de Lempicki


  1. sorry for a slight correction: you wrote: "before she died in 1961"...
    I think she died in 1980 - might this be correct?

    beside that: thank you for presenting her work here - even when she was a little bit to stylish for my taste. I keep more with R.B. Kitaj... ;-)

    and: I really love you blog!

    1. Thank you for your positive comments, much appreciated - and you're right about the dates confusion, now corrected thank you. Poul

  2. I think she is an absolute genius. It isn't easy to capture what she captured, which leaves out tons of extraneous detail. The attempt to simplify is where the artistry is. I just heard yesterday that Mark Twain, when he dropped off a story or something to his editor, said, "I'm sorry, I didn't have time to make it short." Too true!


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