Tamara de Lempicka
Polish-Russian, French, American Painter
Summary of Tamara de Lempicka
Tamara de Lempicka was the lone traditional easel painter in the entirety of the Art Deco style. Her sources of inspiration ranged dramatically: she adored Italian Renaissance painting; she was characterized by critics as a sort of modern-day Ingres, although the comparisons were more often not intended to flatter; she absorbed the avant garde art of the era - particularly post-cubist abstraction but of a "softened" style. Perhaps most influential was Lempicka's desire to capitalize on her social connections to create a niche for her portraiture, which most often featured well-to-do, cosmopolitan types. The Art Deco style, lavish in a less visually complex way than its predecessor, Art Nouveau, was probably the ideal vehicle for her trendy style. Most notably, despite its decorative quality, her work provided her with an outlet for unconventional self-expression: truly a product of her era, the libertine golden age between the two world wars, Lempicka, a bisexual, made bold, liberated female sexuality the linchpin of her art.
- Trained by two successful avant-garde artists at the height of post-Cubist experimentation, Lempicka's work is nevertheless most often categorized as Art Deco. While her style incorporates the geometric, faceted forms of Cubism, her emphasis on soft modeling achieved a more sensuous effect. The bodies of her sitters are slightly distorted so that they appear as elegant objets d'art as much as human figures. She incorporated the rich, limited palette of Art Deco - particularly, graphic design - to create polished portraits that seemed more decorative than serious high art.
- Lempicka's lifestyle, one in which she flouted her sexual freedom, has made her something of a conundrum for feminist art historians. As she frequently depicted her female lovers and other women - often in pairs or groups - as reveling in their sexuality under the gaze of a female painter, it is possible to regard Lempicka as a kind of proto-feminism. Indeed, as a female painter representing the female nude, she subverted the conventional arrangement in which a naked woman is displayed exclusively for the viewing pleasure of the male onlooker. The result is a kind of egalitarian voyeurism. The caveat may be, however, that as a member of the upper class, Lempicka's freedom was more easily attained and forgiven.
- The gleaming surfaces of her sensual portraits are tributes to jazz- and flapper-age decadence following the privations of WWI. She was a favorite artist of the rich and socialites of her time, her popularity continues with celebrities such as Madonna, Jack Nicholson, and Barbra Streisand that enjoy her sharp lines and bold statements of a by-gone age.
Progression of Art
Group of Four Nudes
Lempicka's Four Nudes from 1925 exudes eroticism and powerful femininity. In the picture, four contorted, nude women recline in a complex tangle of rounded, heavily modeled, and sharply outlined body parts. The robust, sensual figures with their sultry expressions are reminiscent of the nude bathers of Lempicka's artistic predecessors - from Ingres and Delacroix to Matisse and Picasso.
Lempicka's figures have been likened to Ingres's fleshy and distorted but elegant bathers, such as those pictured in the work, Turkish Baths (1862). However, the piece must also be analyzed in comparison to Cubist works, including but not exclusively, nudes by Picasso such as Two Nudes (1905) or for that matter, the groundbreaking Les demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Lempicka absorbed tradition but was also deeply influenced by Cubism.
The shallow background of the picture, which is typical of post-Cubist compositions, has the effect of making the women feel even more compressed within the space, thereby also heightening the eroticism. Art historian Joan Cox argues that "[Lempicka] has chosen to crop her view of the female bathers tightly and give the viewer - a presumably female viewer - the experience of joining in the frolicking. She invites the female viewer in as a lover rather than creating an experience for a male viewer as a distant voyeur into this all female public space." Indeed, works like the nude groupings by Ingres and Picasso presume a male viewer as, at the least, the artists themselves were males. Lempicka subverts that dynamic and, in a way, excludes male viewers altogether.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Kizette in Pink
One of the many portraits of her daughter Kizette, this painting features her dressed in whitish pink from head to foot. She seems childishly to have lost a shoe and she tries to hide her sock with her other foot. It has been suggested that Kizette's slightly awkward position may be a reference to a well-known Russian Orthodox Christian icon of the Madonna and Child, the Theotokos of Tikhvin (c. 1300). In a highly venerated painting, the infant Jesus is holding an object, probably a scroll, and crosses one leg over the other much like Kizette does in her portrait.
Lempicka was quite young when she gave birth to her daughter. A major consequence of Tamara's persistent ambivalence concerning motherhood was that in general, she had very little contact with Kizette, who lived instead with close family members and attended boarding school. The girl typically saw her mother during the holidays and, according to Lempicka's biography, the artist would sometimes pretend her daughter was her sister so she could lie about her age. When mother and daughter did meet, Lempicka would often paint Kizette's portrait. Images of Kizette are among her most successful and possibly psychologically revealing works. Indeed, in indirectly connecting Kizette to the Christ Child from the famous icon, Lempicka positions herself as the Madonna - the ideal mother- perhaps in part to assuage her guilt at essentially abandoning her child, perhaps also as a means of communicating the involuntary nature of her own motherhood.
Although this depiction of Kizette is somewhat naturalistic, the style is undoubtedly the so-called "soft Cubism" of Lempicka and L'Hote. The girl, whose expression reflects none of the coquettishness of Lempicka's typical female subjects, seems to be sitting within an arrangement of shapes recalling industrial materials with waves, ships, and a city in the background - forms that evoke not only the sharp, fragmented shapes of Cubism but also the standard geometrical forms of Art Deco.
Oil on canvas - Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes - France
La Belle Rafaela
Lempicka is said to have found a new model for her paintings in the Bois de Boulogne, a very large public park in Paris that was also the place where prostitutes often proffered their services. Known only to us, the viewers, as "Rafaela", she became the main muse and subject for Lempicka's paintings for over a year.
The style of the painting is reminiscent of a work by Caravaggio in its emphasis of light and shadow. But in this dramatic picture, the focus is on the powerful, sensuous, and sculptural form of the nude female figure. The shapely curves of Rafaela have both a beauty and a strength that Lempicka is most famous for. This achievement was noticed by the German women's magazine, Die Dame, and Lempicka was commissioned to produce a series of covers for it.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
In what is probably her most famous painting, Lempicka depicts herself sitting at the wheel of a green Bugatti sports car, wearing fashionable brown driving gloves, a close-fitting hat that resembles a helmet, and a scarf that billows in dramatic, sharp folds to her right. The folds of the fabric, the chrome details so directly exemplary of Art Deco-style details, and the striking lighting provide the impression of speed as if the painting captures a fleeting moment.
The work offers a new image of modern woman - of unabashed self-determination and unapologetic sexuality. The artist's expression is controlled and dispassionate as she gazes directly at the viewer, appropriating the traditional male gaze and contradicting traditional depictions of women who are meant to be viewed exclusively by male viewers as sex objects.
The painting was commissioned for the front cover of Die Dame, a German magazine devoted to promoting the concept of the modern woman. This work exemplifies how Lempicka's work occupied a kind of liminal niche between fine art, portraiture to be specific, and graphic art. Unlike her male colleagues whose Cubism-inspired work included portraits and genre images, Lempicka's work, even in her day, was often considered within the context of the decorative arts.
Oil on board - Private Collection
The Musician is one of Lempicka's genre paintings. It draws on a distinctly traditional theme: allegorical representations of the arts. In this case, music is depicted as a beautiful and elegant, dark-haired woman, absorbed in music making. Lempicka was deeply influenced by the Renaissance works she saw in the Louvre Museum, among other places, and this work might reference any number of paintings from the period and afterwards. Indeed, as recently as the early 1900s and 1910s, the Cubists had made musicians and musical instruments major themes of their work.
But Lempicka's thoroughly modern, sensual and fashionable female figure, while comprised of the characteristic generously modeled planes and forms of Cubism, is the main feature of the painting. This contrasts sharply with Cubist compositions in which objects and backgrounds seem to be constantly shifting, with individual components of the overall work of equal importance for the most part. Additionally, the bright blue dress rejects the customary, drab palette of early Cubism. Lempicka's paintings often feature limited palettes but color is rarely subdued and the colors she selects are often in step with the tastes of the period.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Portrait of Doctor Boucard
In 1929, Lempicka's most avid collectors (besides the Baron) Dr. Pierre Boucard commissioned a portrait of himself; the artist also painted a number of portraits of Boucard's wife and his daughter. A distinguished looking, middle-aged man, the confident Boucard is framed by a background of white geometric shapes comprised of sharp angles. The darkness behind them creates a kind of mysterious contrast. In comparison to the somewhat flattened forms that make up the figure and the background, the microscope is fully realized formally. It anchors Boucard to the background; it is as though he holds onto it for balance.
In the picture, Boucard wears a smartly tailored white coat - a lab coat transformed into a chic outer garment that doesn't even hint at his vocation as a physician and researcher. Rather, he could be a military officer or, more intriguing still, a spy. Indeed, he stands in the shadows with his face turned toward the light. The pose seems to be defensive or protective of the objects he possesses: a test tube half-filled with fluid. Indeed, although Dr. Boucard was tangentially involved in cloak-and-dagger activities during the Second World War - his racing yacht was used by the French Resistance to transport munitions and was found by the Nazis and scuttled (then later purchased by Greek tycoon, Aristotle Onassis), Boucard's claim to fame as a famous French bacteriologist - hence the test tube and the microscope - was his 1907 isolation of Lactobacillus acidophilus, which he developed into an antidiarrheal drug called Lacetol. The discovery and subsequent development of the drug made Bourcard quite wealthy; thus, he had the finances to commission multiple portraits from Lempicka. The portrait is an idealized image of the doctor, whose work was far from glamorous.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
From 1934 to 1938, Lempicka was apparently suffering from depression, which made it difficult for her to work. Of the small number of paintings she produced during that period, most had religious themes and the majority were bust portraits of the Virgin Mary or of people in prayer. All of her works from the period tended toward conservatism, although the pictures were clearly produced in her distinctive style.
Suzanne Bathing marks Lempicka's return to painting sensual, nude women, although the theme is still emphatically religious: it is a story from the Old Testament. The story was a favorite of Renaissance and Baroque artists and its underlying emphasis is on voyeurism. In the story, two judges, well-respected elders, spy on the virtuous Susanna as she bathes. In contrast to some of her earlier image of women who revel in the awareness of their sexuality and the power it confers, subjects who make direct eye contact with the viewer, Lempicka's Susanna, this modern Suzanne, looks away and huddles forward into herself in a gesture of modesty. She clutches a portion of the white cloth resting near her as though she may at any moment pull it toward her to cover herself. Is this the moment in which she discovers she is being observed?
Interestingly, whereas her earlier works tended to depict women against the dramatic skyline of a modern, mechanized city, here Suzanne is shown against a pastoral background of trees. This painting signals the beginning of an era of more conservative works. In fact, her artistic output during this second half of her career is far less openly sensual.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
By the end of the 1930s, Lempicka had turned for the most part to more conservative subjects, styles, portraits and genre images like this one featuring archetypal figures rather than real people. Such images, far less compelling than her earlier, openly sensual and lavish portraits, comprise the bulk of her later oeuvre. Gone are the wealthy and glamorous sitters arranged against modern backgrounds. Instead, works such as The Mexican Woman feature other segments of society like this woman, who is evidently poor given the holes in her clothing and the tattered straw hat.
The sitter's large straw hat lends her a sense of drama, but her expression is wry, suggesting unhappiness. The work maintains de Lempicka's typical treatment of flesh and the dramatic lighting, but the image is altogether more conservative than her earlier work, and lacks the sensuality that characterized her Art Deco style.
Oil on canvas - Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes - France
Biography of Tamara de Lempicka
Tamara de Lempicka was born Maria Gorska in Warsaw (then part of Russia). Her father was a Russian-Jewish lawyer and her mother was a Polish socialite. As a child of a well-off family, she went to boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1911, she spent the summer with her grandmother in Italy, where she was introduced to the work of the great Italian painters, sparking a love of art that would inform the rest of her life.
The following year, her parents divorced and she was sent to live with her aunt in St. Petersburg. Her aunt was very wealthy, which provided her niece with a taste of the life of luxury enjoyed by the rich elite. When she was 15, Maria Gorska attended an opera, where she encountered the dashing Tadeusz Lempicki, whom she determined to marry. The gregarious and self-confident Maria convinced her uncle to make the introduction and, three years later, she and Lempicki were married.
The following year, in 1917 the Russian Revolution began and her husband was arrested by the Bolsheviks. After weeks of trying to locate her husband in prison by exploiting her social connections, charm, and attractive appearance, Maria found Tadeusz and managed to arrange for his release (supposedly, Lempicka seduced a person of power to get her husband out). Shortly afterwards, the couple left the country and eventually settled in Paris where her family had also taken refuge.
Early Training and work
In Paris, she reinvented herself as Tamara de Lempicka, a name that had direct aristocratic pretensions. Ironically, her financial circumstances were somewhat dire as a result of her refugee status, so she determined to make money from her art. Tamara began studying diligently, enrolling at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where she was taught by the Nabis painter, Maurice Denis and the Cubist André Lhote. Denis encouraged her to take inspiration from the graphic arts, an engagement that was to play a key role in the development of her signature style. Lhote was arguably her most influential mentor. Lhote's brand of Cubism - less flattened, angular version to which he referred as "soft Cubism," - is immediately detectable in Lempicka's style.
Lempicka established herself fairly rapidly in the sophisticated, lively atmosphere of roaring '20s Paris in both social and artistic terms. She began showing her work in smaller galleries in the French capital and, in 1925, had her first solo exhibition in Milan. The show was sponsored by Count Emmanuele Castelbarco, a member of Italian high society and chic, continental artistic circles. In preparation for the show, Lempicka painted an astonishing 28 new pieces in a mere six months.
Tamara de Lempicka was well suited to the prosperous golden age of the post-war period of the 1920s, the "roaring twenties", in Paris. Devoted to social ascendance but also enthralled with the bohemian lifestyles of the Parisian avant-garde, Lempicka found her place as a portraitist of some of the era's beautiful people. She mingled in circles with bright personalities such as André Gide, Pablo Picasso, Colette, and Jean Cocteau. Although married and the mother of a young daughter named Kizette, Tamara, who fashioned herself part-free spirit, part-femme fatale, engaged openly in romantic and sexual involvements with both men and women, a good number of whom were her patrons and models. She mixed with groups of lesbian and bisexual women artists and writers, attending Natalie Barney's "women only" afternoons and becoming friendly with figures such as Vita Sackville-West. Among her infamous entanglements was Lempicka's affair with Parisian nightclub singer, Suzy Solidor and her correspondence with the distinguished Italian poet, Gabriel d'Annunzio, whom she visited on two different occasions at his villa in Italy on Lake Garda. During the second visit, when she resisted his amorous advances, Annunzio withdrew his permission for Tamara to paint his portrait and the relationship ended before it had really begun.
In 1927, Lempicka received first prize at the Exposition Internationale des Beaux-Arts for the painting Kizette on the Balcony - a striking portrait of her daughter, whom she saw very rarely. The following year, she and her husband divorced. Subsequently, her patron, Baron Raoul Kuffner con Dioszeg, commissioned her to paint a portrait of his mistress. However, in the process of painting the portrait, Lempicka developed a romantic relationship with the Baron, replacing his mistress and eventually marrying him in 1934 following the death of his wife.
Lempicka, who had experienced the turbulent run-up to the Russian Revolution and then the catastrophic First World War, recognized early on the signs of a second impending world war and encouraged her husband to shore up his finances. In 1939, when war seemed inevitable, the couple left Paris and moved to Hollywood, California. They lived in the former house of the well-known film director, King Vidor, and Tamara soon became a favorite artist of the stars of Hollywood's silver screen.
Lempicka busied herself with war relief work and after an extended struggle, managed to rescue her daughter Kizette from Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941. In 1943, the Baron and Baroness, as Lempicka was now known, moved to New York City, where they continued to socialize as frequently as ever, although de Lempicka's art took something of a back seat compared to her prolific output in Paris. The distinctive style in which she painted had by the mid-1940s become somewhat passe and therefore her work was less in demand.
When her husband, the Baron, died in 1961, Tamara sold many of her belongings and embarked on three around-the-world voyages by ship. Afterwards, she moved to Houston, Texas to be closer to her daughter. Around that time, she began producing abstract paintings in an effort to remain more in-step with current artistic trends. However, when she exhibited her work in 1962, it was poorly received by critics and the aging Lempicka made the decision to retire from public life as a painter and to never again exhibit her work.
Ironically, around the time Tamara had forsaken art, there was a renewed interest in the Art Deco style. In 1966, an exhibition devoted completely to the Art Deco movement was held in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, reigniting interest in Lempicka's work. In 1972, the Galerie du Luxembourg presented a major retrospective of her work, thus restoring interest both in Lempicka and her work.
The intelligent, self-determined Lempicka was reportedly very temperamental in her old age, including being notoriously difficult with everyone - her daughter included - who proposed to exhibit her work. In 1978, she moved to Cuernavaca in Mexico, where she bought a unique architect-designed house. After she died in 1980, her ashes were scattered on top of Popocatepetl, a volcano in Mexico.
The Legacy of Tamara de Lempicka
In both her life and her art, Tamara de Lempicka offered a new image of the modern woman: part jazz-age femme fatale, libertine and social climber, and part canny self-promoter, self-styled experimental artist and astute cultural and historical prognosticator. In many ways, Lempicka's artistic output has been assessed as inseparable from her larger-than-life character and, more significantly, her gender. Her work, while arguably Cubist-inspired to an extent, exudes the lavishness of the decorative, just as do her sitters. Finding her niche - a comfortable place between traditional easel painting inspired by the likes of Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Ingres and objects produced solely for decoration - Tamara de Lempicka's Art Deco style has been an inspiration to figures as diverse as the singer and designer Florence Welch and fashion designers Karl Lagerfeld and Louis Vuitton.