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de Lempicka, Tamara

Tamara de Lempicka

The most famous painter of the Art Deco period, Tamara de Lempicka (1898–1980), was born in Poland and emigrated to the United States as an adult. De Lempicka was a socialite, wife, refugee, mother, and painter. Her portraits, including her self portraits, appealed to the rich because of her bold use of color, unique style, and the sense of elegance that permeated her work.

Growing Up

Tamara de Lempicka was born Maria Gorska in Warsaw, Poland, in 1898. She had an older brother named Stanczyk and a younger sister named Adrienne. Her parents, Boris and Lavina Gorska, were wealthy socialites. Boris Gorska was a lawyer and Lavina Gorska came from a well-to-do family. The Gorskas treated their children to a luxurious life—a life de Lempicka would soon believe she deserved.

De Lempicka was introduced to art at the age of 12, when her mother paid a famous painter to paint her daughter's portrait. The girl's strong will and dominant personality made it difficult for her to be still for the sittings. When the portrait was finished, she hated the result and knew that she could do a better job. To prove herself right, she made Adrienne, her younger sister, sit for a portrait as she tried painting for the first time. De Lempicka was so pleased with her work that she soon began her life-long love affair with art.

During this time, de Lempicka's parents divorced and she became spoiled by her wealthy grandmother and Aunt Stefa (Stephanie). At the age of 13, she decided that she was bored with school and invented an illness so that she could stay home. Instead of keeping her home, however, her grandmother took her on a tour of Italy. It was there that de Lempicka's love for art intensified. Upon her return home, de Lempicka's mother decided to remarry despite her daughter's protest. Now 14 years old, the teenager was unhappy with her mother's decision. She rebelled by going to stay with her aunt in St. Petersburg (Petrograd) when she was on holiday from her school in Lausanne, Switzerland. Between school and her travels to St. Petersburg, de Lempicka still managed to travel home to Warsaw from time to time. During one of her trips home in 1914, shortly after Russia and Germany declared war, she met a handsome lawyer and ladies' man named Taduesz Lempicki. Lempicki was modestly well-off as a lawyer, but he did not come from money. Still, Tamara fell in love with him, and two years later, in 1916, the couple married in St. Petersburg at the Chapel of the Knights of Malta. De Lempicka was 17 years old and her millionaire banker uncle provided the dowry.

Life as a Refugee

In December of 1918, in the midst of the Russian Revolution, Taduesz Lempicki was arrested by the Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police). De Lempicka escaped to Copenhagen and used her striking beauty to charm favors from members of the Swedish consul. Her seductive gestures worked well and her husband was released. The couple fled to Paris, changed their names to de Lempicka and tried to resume their glamorous lifestyle. Unfortunately, their marriage had been tarnished by the results of Tamara's sultry, seductive ways with other men.

Life in Paris was far from glamorous for the de Lempickas. Tadeusz had become a womanizer and was bitter from his ordeal with the Cheka. The couple lived in a small room in a cheap hotel and Tadeusz could not find a job. Then Tamara found out she was pregnant. By the time she gave birth to a baby girl, Kizette, money was so scarce that de Lempicka was forced to sell her jewels to support the family. Determined to resume her wealthy lifestyle, she turned to art to make a living.

The Art That Influenced Her Style

De Lempicka took her first painting lesson from Maurice Denis at the Académie Ranson. Denis was a post-symbolist French Nabi painter. Nabi art was developed by Les Nabis, a group of Parisian post-Impressionist artists. It was best identified by an artist's emphasis on graphic art and design. De Lempicka's second teacher, Andreé Lhote, had the most influence on her spare, simple Art Deco style. Lhote was a mute French Cubist painter and sculptor. (Cubism was developed in the early 1900s as a collaboration between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.) Cubist art was identified by an artist's ability to capture the essence of an object by showing it from multiple points of view simultaneously. Lhote taught de Lempicka how to modify Cubism by retaining "its commercially acceptable aspects but leaving forms of objects intact" (Women in World History). De Lempicka's art combined the styles from her two teachers and she soon became known as one of the best portrait artists in Paris.

Fame and Fortune

De Lempicka's first paintings caught the eye of Collette Weill, owner of Gallerie Colette Weill. Weill displayed de Lempicka's work in her gallery and patrons seemed to fall in love with the sensual, shocking portraits that boldly identified de Lempicka's unique style. She was rewarded with immediate financial success and soon became a celebrity in the art world. Once again, de Lempicka was able to live lavishly. She purchased a diamond bracelet for every two paintings that sold, and before long both of her arms were drenched in gems from wrist to shoulder. As she moved into the upper strata, the artist traveled more, stayed in the finest hotels, and surrounded herself with the cultural elite.

In 1925, de Lempicka established her reputation as a leading Art Deco artist at the Exposition Internationale des Artes Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne. A form of art that combined Cubism and design, Art Deco had begun to become wildly popular, and this was the first Art Deco exhibition in Paris. From that moment on, her career as an artist took off. She painted portraits of the people she associated herself with: the rich, the famous, the elite. Galleries began to hang her work in their best rooms and critics raved over her erotic portraits. Between the 1920s and 1930s, de Lempicka produced paintings that would become quite famous. One of her most sought-after pieces, Auto-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) was completed in 1925. In this self-portrait, which she painted for the cover of Die Dame, de Lempicka presented herself as "a dazzling and independent woman who looks like she might fly away in her aquamarine car." In 1927, she won first prize at the Exposition Internationale des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux for a painting of her daughter entitled Kizette on the Balcony. Four years later, she would win a bronze medal at the Exposition Internationale in Poznan, Poland, for another portrait of her daughter, Kizette's First Communion.

Upon achieving fame and fortune, de Lempicka began to have affairs with wealthy art patrons. Her noted affairs included Marquis Sommi Picenardi, a lover she took during a tour of Italy; Rafaela, the model for her painting Beautiful Rafaela; and Gabriele d'Annunzio, Italy's premiere poet and playwright. Her affair with Rafaela lasted one year and her affair with d'Annunzio was a mere flirtation. De Lempicka was more interested in completing his portrait than she was in consummating the affair. Unfortunately, the relationship ended before the portrait was finished.

By 1928, de Lempicka was living an aristocratic life. She divorced Tadeusz and met Baron Raoul Kuffner, an Austro-Hungarian royal who collected many of her paintings. Kuffner hired her to paint a portrait of his mistress, Nana de Herrera. While working on the piece, de Lempicka became one of Kuffner's mistresses. In 1933, the Baroness Kuffner died of leukemia and de Lempicka stepped in to take the baron as her husband. Her new husband gave her everything she wanted: a title, money, culture, and stature. De Lempicka became more popular as an artist and continued to work. She was so popular, in fact, that wealthy people and royalty would stand in line to have the honor of their portrait being painted by the famous Tamara de Lempicka. But with another war on the horizon, the glamorous life did not last.

Moved to America

In 1939, the Nazi influence had spread across Europe and the wealthy were faced with the threat of World War II. Unemployment was high and the world was in a state of chaos. It was no longer acceptable to paint expensive paintings for a rich audience. Instead, galleries were looking for surrealist and abstract art that appealed to common people. Having fled from war once before during the Russian Revolution, de Lempicka knew all too well about the financial insecurity that would ensue when war finally broke. As a result, she encouraged Kuffner to sell parts of his Hungarian estate, and in 1939, the couple sought refuge in America. They moved into a film director's former house in Beverly Hills, and de Lempicka, eager to boost her publicity, held a contest at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) to find a model for her painting Susannah and the Elders. She also sponsored her own solo exhibitions at the Paul Reinhart Gallery in Los Angeles, the Julian Levy Gallery in New York, the Courvoisier Galleries in San Francisco, and the Milwaukee Institute of Art. Soon, de Lempicka became friends with such Hollywood stars as Dolores del Rio, Tyrone Power, and George Sanders. They gave her a nickname: "The Baroness with a Brush."

In 1943, the Kuffners moved to New York. By this time, de Lempicka's social life had begun to corrupt her art. Tamara de Lempicka, an artist who had married a baron, was a woman of the past. De Lempicka was now known as Baroness Kuffner, a dilettante who had taken up painting as a hobby. With America's attraction to titles, the latter was far more intriguing to the upper class. No longer taken seriously as an artist, de Lempicka painted less. As her production slowed, she disappeared from the art world for nearly 20 years. Then, in 1960, she ventured into abstract art and tried to reclaim her artistic reputation. Unfortunately, when her work was exhibited in 1962 at New York's Iolas Gallery it was met with a critical yawn. Unable to cope with such disrespect and trying to deal with her husband's sudden death from a heart attack, de Lempicka gave up on painting as a career and never exhibited again.

De Lempicka's Last Travels

Distraught, de Lempicka moved to Houston in 1962 to live near Kizette and her two granddaughters. (Kizette had moved to America in 1941 and married a Texas geologist). Then in 1966, the Musee des Arts Decoratifs commemorated Art Deco in a special exhibition, resurrecting interest and appreciation for this 1920s-1930s art form. Inspired by the exhibit, Alain Blondel opened the Galeire du Luxembourg and launched a major retrospective of Tamara de Lempicka. As a result, de Lempicka's art enjoyed a renaissance in the 1970s and her work was rediscovered by the art world. Unfortunately, de Lempicka would not live to see the enormous surge in popularity her work experienced in the 1990s. (In 1994, Barbara Streisand sold the artist's Adam and Eve for $1.8 million, a painting she had purchased in 1984 for $135,000.).

In 1974, de Lempicka decided to move to Cuernavaca, Mexico. She bought a beautiful house called Tres Bambus in a chic neighborhood in 1978, and Kizette joined her in 1979 after her husband died. By this time, de Lempicka was quite ill. She spent her last days with her daughter at her bedside and died in her sleep on March 18, 1980. According to her mother's will, Kizette scattered de Lempicka's ashes over the crater of Mt. Popocatépetl, an active volcano.

Books

Commire, Anne, ed., Women in World History, Yorkin Publications, 2001.

Néret, Gilles, Tamara de Lempicka, Verlag, 1990.

Online

"An Artist Whose Portraits Symbolize the Wild Ride of the Jazz Age…Tamara de Lempicka," Techniquelle website,http://www.techniquelle.com (December 22, 2003).

"Artist: Tamara de Lempicka," SOHO Art website,http://www.soho-art.com (December 22, 2003).

"Bio: Tamara de Lempicka," CGFA: A Virtual Art Musuem website,http://cgfa.sunsite.dk (December 22, 2003).

"Tamara de Lempicka (1898–1980)," Good Art website,http://www.goodart.org (December 22, 2003).

"Tamara de Lempicka: Biography, History," Art City website,http://www.artcity.com (December 22, 2003).

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