Lempicka, Tamara de (1898–1980)

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Lempicka, Tamara de (1898–1980)

Polish portraitist, influenced by Cubism, and star of the Art Deco movement. Name variations: Baroness Kuffner; Baroness Tamara de Lempicka-Kuffner; La Belle Polonaise. Born Tamara Gorska in Warsaw, Poland, in 1898; died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on March 18, 1980; daughter of Boris Gorski (an attorney for a French trading company) and Malvina (Decler) Gorska; student of Maurice Denis and André Lhote in Paris; married Tadeusz Lempicki (a Petrograd attorney), in 1916 (divorced 1928); married Raoul Kuffner (an Hungarian baron), in 1933 (died 1962); children: (first marriage) daughter Baroness Kizette de Lempicka-Foxhall .

Selected paintings:

Woman in Black Dress (1923); The Two Friends (1923); Autoportrait (also known as Tamara in the Green Bugatti, 1925); Portrait of Marquis Sommi (1925); Reclining Nude (1925); Portrait of the Marquis d'Afflitto (1925); Portrait of the Duchess de la Salle (1925); Portrait of Prince Eristoff (1925); Seated Nude (1925); The Model (1925); Group of Four Nudes (1925); Portrait of Count Fürstenberg Herdringen (c. 1925); Kizette on the Balcony (1927); Kizette in Pink (1927); Portrait of H.I.H., the Grand Duke Gabriel (1927); The Young Ladies (c. 1927); Andromeda (1927–28); Beautiful Rafaela (1927); Spring (1928); High Summer (1928); Portrait of a Man (Incomplete) (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1928); Portrait of Arlette Boucard (1928); The Girls (1928); Girl with Gloves (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1929); Women Bathing (c. 1929); Portrait of Nana de Herrera (1929); Portrait of Dr. Boucard (1929); Lady in Blue with Guitar (1929); St. Moritz (1929); Portrait of Madame M. (1930); Sleeping Woman (1930); Idyll (1931); Calla Lily (1931); Portrait of Madame Boucard (1931); Portrait of Ira P. (n.d.); Portrait of Marjorie Ferry (1932); Portrait of a Man, Baron Kuffner (1932); Adam and Eve (1932); Portrait of Pierre de Montaut (1933); Portrait of Suzy Solidor (1933); Sleeping Woman (1935); Old Man with Guitar (1935); Mother Superior (Musée des Beaux-Artsin Nantes, 1939); Lady in Blue (1939); Key and Hand (1941); Calla Lily (1941); Surrealist Landscape (n.d.); Surrealist Hand (n.d.); Lady in Yellow (n.d.); The Orange Turban (1945); Amethyst (1946); Mexican Girl (1948); Venice in the Rain (1960); Calla Lily (1961). Exhibited in numerous private and joint shows (1923–1980); awarded Prix d'honneur at the Exposition Internationale in Bordeaux. Signed TJL or T.DE LEMPICKA; DE LEMPICKA.

Dubbed "the steely-eyed goddess of the automobile age" by The New York Times, the quintessential Art Deco portraitist Tamara de Lempicka was a darling of the haute monde—tall, slender, and enigmatic. "Like Greta Garbo, with whom she was acquainted," wrote her biographer Gilles Néret, "this star of Art Deco painting did everything she could to cover her tracks, leaving behind but few biographical cast-offs in an abundance of mysterious silence. Carefully selected cast-offs." But this high-profile artist of the post-Cubist 1920s and neo-classicist 1930s had been confined to history's attic until a 1973 retrospective of her works was held at the Galerie du Luxembourg in Paris. In 1994, Barbra Streisand sold Lempicka's Adam and Eve at auction for $1.8 million, a painting she had originally purchased for $135,000 ten years before. "Indeed," writes Edward Lucie-Smith, "since the rediscovery of her work in the early 1970s, Lempicka, even more than either [Jean] Dupas or [Raphael] Delorme, has come to be thought of as the Art Deco painter, almost to the exclusion of all rivals."

That Tamara de Lempicka was a woman of amazing will is known and has been verified. Born Tamara Gorska in 1898 in Warsaw, Poland, the daughter of well-to-do parents, she took over at the first opportunity. She was the middle child, with an older brother Stanczyk and a younger sister Adrienne. When Tamara was 12, her mother commissioned a famous painter to do a portrait of her dominant daughter. Lempicka hated the sittings as well as the result. Convinced she could do better, she commandeered Adrienne to sit while she painted her portrait. The result, she felt, was far more salutary.

In 1911, bored with school, the 13-year-old finagled a year off by inventing an illness and, with her grandmother, did the grand tour of Italy. There, her love of art was intensified. In 1914, the year that Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated, her mother remarried. Once again, Tamara rebelled. That summer, while armies throughout Europe mobilized, Lempicka left her school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and went to stay with her Aunt Stefa in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) rather than return home for the summer holidays. By August, the Russians and Germans were at each other's throats, and World War I had begun.

Privations had yet to occur, however, for those with money, and Aunt Stefa was rich; Tamara took to her lifestyle immediately and determined that she too would have a comfortable existence. At 17, she fell in love with a Petrograd attorney, Tadeusz Lempicki, and married him in the Chapel of the Knights of Malta in Petrograd in 1916. But 1917 was not a good year to be in Russia's capital city, especially for those living lavishly. Most Russians were coping with deplorable conditions. It was a year of turbulence and confusion. In February, there were "bread riots" in Petrograd that quickly developed into the March Revolution. This led to the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky and comprised of members of the Fourth Duma. Following an unsuccessful offensive by the Russian army against the Austrians and Germans in July, street demonstrations broke out. The government brought in reliable troops to put down this event of the "July Days," and Kerensky's

government became discredited. Then the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin seized control of Petrograd in November. Lenin's "November Revolution" easily succeeded in taking power with the help of the Red Guard, a militia formed from factory workers.

By the close of 1918, Lenin's party had established a dictatorship based upon a new secret police, the Cheka. His opponents had formed "White" armies to fight his "Reds." When Lenin was nearly assassinated by a political opponent in September 1918, his colleagues launched a "Red Terror," in which thousands of enemies of the new government were executed. Tamara's husband Tadeusz was one of those caught in the net. Arrested by the Cheka, he was imprisoned in December of 1918; Tamara fled to Copenhagen where she eventually secured his release with the help of the Swedish consul in Petrograd. As homeless refugees, the couple immigrated to postwar Paris. There they lived in a small room in a cheap hotel, where their daughter Kizette was born. Tadeusz, who had grown moody and bitter due to his ordeal, was also a womanizer, and the marriage suffered; they would eventually divorce in 1928.

I live on the fringe of society, and the rules of normal society have no currency for those on the fringe.

—Tamara de Lempicka

Since Tadeusz spent well but earned little, Lempicka sold her jewels to support the family. Encouraged by her sister Adrienne, who was also in Paris taking up architecture, Lempicka began to study painting with post-symbolist Maurice Denis at the Académie Ranson, in hopes of earning an income with her still-lifes and portraits. It was her second teacher, the muted-Cubist André Lhote, who had the most influence. He instilled in Tamara the need to modify Cubism, to retain its commercially acceptable aspects but leave forms of objects intact. By simplifying Cubism, claims Gilles Néret, Lhote was really indulging in geometrism. Lhote maintained that a human body was like any other object. "This was what he called the 'plastic metaphor,'" writes Néret, "a metaphor which Tamara used time and again [in her paintings] … in her harems populated by provocative idiots; in her nudes, which are also allegories of lasciviousness; or in her portraits characterized by the haughty expression typical of a certain caste."

Lempicka's first paintings were sold by the Gallerie Colette Weill. Meeting with immediate financial success, she began to acquire impressive contacts with the Salon des Indépendants, the Salon d'Automne, and the Salon des Moins de Trente Ans. "After every two paintings sold," claimed her daughter Kizette, "she would buy a bracelet, until one day she would have covered herself in diamonds and jewels from her wrists to her shoulders." Once again, the family began to move into the upper strata. Lempicka traveled, enjoying the best hotels. She also began to surround herself with the cultural elite, living a bohemian life in Auteuil on the rich fringe, while "loving art and high society in equal measure," wrote her friend Jean Cocteau. "She had her own law," the law of the 1920s, Kizette observed:

She was only interested in those she considered the better class of people: the aristocracy, the wealthy, the intellectual elite. She had the feeling, typical of all talented people, that she deserved everything which came her way, and this gave her the freedom to mingle only with those who could help her or nourish her ego in some way or other. She lived on the Left Bank, as was proper for an artist, despising everything that was bourgeois, mediocre or "pretty." She dressed luxuriously so as to dazzle her fans, while shrouding her past in a veil of mystery. Quite deliberately, she cultivated uncertainty as to her age, her life in Poland and Russia, and even her family. The Polish girl of good family, the child bride, the émigrée, the young mother—all disappeared behind her canvases … to emerge once more as the modern, bewitching, sophisticated—not to say decadent—beauty.

She would later complain to her daughter that the days became too short. "Sometimes I would go out in the evening, not come home until two, and then paint until six by the light of a blue lamp."

Repelled by the banality of the art surrounding her, Lempicka staked everything on style. She was fascinated with technique and wanted to become an artisan. "My goal was never to copy," she said. Instead, she set out "to create a new style, bright, luminous colours and to scent out the elegance in my models." Her portraits were of Russian emigres, impoverished nobility, and the neauveau riche, flavored with homoeroticism.

In 1925, Lempicka established her reputation as a leading Art Deco artist at the Exposition Internationale des Artes Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the first Art Deco exhibition in Paris for furniture, fashion, painting, and apparel. A synthesis of Cubism and design, Art Deco would later be called degenerate art by Joseph Goebbels, becoming the fuel for Nazi bonfires. While American fashion magazines became aware of Lempicka's grand-dukes, marquesses,

and intimidating duchesses, exhibitions were held at the Salon the Tuileries and the Salon des Femmes Peintres. Her self-portrait Autoportrait (also known as Tamara in the Green Bugatti), which she painted for the cover of the magazine Die Dame, was celebrated. This blend of woman and machine was hailed as the perfect portrait of the age. Noted the magazine Auto-Journal in 1974: "She is wearing gloves, and a helmet. She is inaccessible, a cool, disconcerting beauty, behind which a formidable being can be glimpsed—this woman is free!"

"I was the first woman to paint cleanly," Tamara told her daughter, "and that was the basis of my success. From a hundred pictures, mine will always stand out. And so the galleries began to hang my work in their best rooms, always in the middle, because my painting was attractive. It was precise, it was 'finished.'" She was a devotee of Jean Ingres, especially his eroticism and distortions of the human form. This influence can easily be seen in her Women Bathing, evocative of Ingres' The Turkish Bath.

As the critics raved, mother and daughter went to Italy to study the classical masterpieces, and the Bottega di Poesia in Milan held Tamara's first Italian exhibition. While there, she took a lover, the Marquis Sommi Picenardi. (The bisexual Lempicka also had many affairs with women, often with her models. The affair with Rafaela , model for the painting Beautiful Rafaela, cited by the Sunday Times Magazine as "one of the most magnificent nudes of the century," would last one year.) While in Italy, she was eagerly pursued by Gabriele d'Annunzio, Italy's premiere poet and playwright, who, wanting to add Lempicka to his stable of mistresses, commissioned his portrait with sittings at his villa Il Vittoriale in Gardone. Though the portrait was never finished, the relationship soon was. Lempicka was far more eager to paint his portrait than to be involved with the by now elderly d'Annunzio. The brief flirtation, which was never consummated, would be detailed by d'Annunzio's housekeeper-mistress Aelis Mazoyer . Published in 1977, Mazoyer's book sold well in Europe and also served to revive Lempicka's popularity. The offbeat play Tamara, which opened in Toronto in 1981, was based on the book. The audience was handed champagne and found itself circulating throughout a building, amassing in different rooms where scenes were played out. The 1984 Los Angeles version, which at one point starred Anjelica Huston , ran for nine years.

In 1927, Lempicka's painting of her daughter, Kizette on the Balcony, won first prize at the prestigious Exposition Internationale des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. Another, Kizette's First Communion, won the bronze medal at the Exposition Internationale in Poznan, Poland. The following year, Lempicka became the mistress of Baron Raoul Kuffner, an Austro-Hungarian royal and one of the major collectors of her works; they met when he commissioned a portrait of his mistress, the Andalusian dancer Nana de Herrera . Lempicka moved into a spacious apartment, designed by Mallet-Stevens, in a three-story townhouse on the rue Méchain. Here, she entertained the elite of Paris, along with the ambassadors of Greece and Peru, her goings and comings fully detailed by the Paris press. Lempicka's dominance, self-assurance, beauty, and high fashion made her the center of her universe.

But in 1929, when the stock market crashed and nationalists and socialists thrived, the climate for art and its patrons changed. It was no longer acceptable just to paint moneyed portraits for moneyed classes; art must be for the common folk. Surrealists and abstract artists were considered elitist. Great murals of herded, laboring humanity were now the vogue. Lempicka "saw herself as the herald of the strong," wrote Néret, "and the great triumph of her art was to reassure." But her portraits were far from plebeian. There was an arrogance in her sitters, a menacing quality. The nudes, notes Giancarlo Marmori, were "dripping with carnal presence." They were women, as Renoir categorized, not rising from the sea, but rising from the bed. Writes Néret:

Tamara's heroes seem to be the last representatives of a decadent world which is falling apart, in which they no longer appear as anything but shadows, parading their boredom and conceit. The first is preparing for war, the second is creating a demand and fighting depression, while these last are closing the door on a world which will soon cease to exist. And it was here that the drama of Tamara de Lempicka would be played out, she too [would be] condemned like the others to disappear along with her creatures.

After the Baroness Kuffner died of leukemia, Lempicka married the baron in 1933, at the urging of her mother. He brought to the marriage a title, money, and culture, and their by-product: sought-after stature. From 1931 to 1939, Lempicka continued to work, with many exhibitions in Paris galleries. Those who were eager for her to paint their portrait had to stand in line. With high unemployment, a world in chaos, and the threat of Nazi Germany, Lempicka urged her husband to sell his estates in Austro-Hungary so they could emigrate to America.

In 1939, the Kuffners, minus Kizette who was at school in Europe, began a long sojourn in America, taking a house in Beverly Hills. For publicity, Lempicka held a competition in 1940 at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) for a model for her painting Susannah and the Elders; she also sponsored her own solo exhibitions at the Paul Reinhart Gallery in L.A., at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York, the Courvoisier Galleries in San Francisco, and the Milwaukee Institute of Art. Her new circle included such Hollywood stars as Dolores del Rio , Tyrone Power, and George Sanders.

By the time the Kuffners moved to New York in 1943, her production had slowed. "It turned out as Cocteau had predicted; her social life began to corrupt her art," noted Kizette, who had arrived in America in 1941. "Once she set foot in New York, Tamara de Lempicka disappeared. What was left was a chic curiosity named Baroness Kuffner." She became known as "Hollywood's favorite artist" and the "baroness with the paintbrush." With America's attraction to titles, she was no longer a painter who had married a baron; she was a baroness who had taken up painting.

After a long silence, in 1960 Lempicka attempted to reclaim her artistic reputation by venturing into the world of abstract art, jettisoning what she was best at, representational. She was not successful. Exhibited at New York's Iolas Gallery in New York in 1962, her new paintings were met with a critical yawn. She never exhibited again.

When her husband died of a heart attack in 1962, a distraught Lempicka moved to Houston to be near Kizette, who had married a Texas geologist and had two daughters. Before long, Lempicka was running the household. In 1974, she moved to Cuernavaca in Mexico, controlling her daughter and grandchildren long distance by constantly modifying her will. When Kizette's husband died in 1979, Kizette moved to Cuernavaca to care for her seriously ill mother. After Lempicka died in her sleep on March 18, 1980, her daughter fittingly scattered her ashes over the crater of an active volcano, Mt. Popocatépetl. Writes Giancarlo Marmori:

It would be too restrictive just to include Tamara de Lempicka in a catalogue of post-Cubist and classico-deco art. The psychological and physical intensity of her subjects, their meta-anatomies and tics, not to say their grimaces, are her way of introducing the very specific exaggeration of the "Neue Sachlichkeit." The exaggeration, and also the hypocrisy. We find ourselves face to face not with an elegant anthropomorphic decoration or with fresco silhouettes for the [French liner] Normandie or the Palais de Chaillot (alias the Palais du Trocadéro), but with extremely lively creatures whose innermost emotional life is sometimes brutally laid bare.


Lempicka-Foxhall, Baroness Kizette de and Charles Phillips. Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka. Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1987.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. Art Deco Painting. NY: Clarkson Potter, 1990.

Néret, Gilles. Tamara de Lempicka, 1898–1980. Köln, Germany: Benedikt Taschen, 1992.

related media:

Tamara: a Living Movie (play) opened in Toronto, Canada, in 1981; ran in Los Angeles, 1984–93; ran in New York, 1987–89.