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Tamara de Lempicka, described as the first woman artist to be a glamour star, is known for her Art Deco-styled portraits of sexy, bedroom-eyed women in stylish dress and haunting poses. Her clear, strong style, sometimes called Soft Cubism, earned her a place at the top of the Art-Deco movement.
Her life is a dramatic story itself. Married twice to wealthy men, she moved from her native Poland to Russia, and then to Paris. In 1918, she studied painting at the Academe de la Grand Chaumiere, and was privately tutored by Maurice Denis. In 1925, she exhibited her works at the first Art Deco show in Paris.
She had been born into a wealthy and prominent family; her father was Boris Gurwik-GÃ³rski, a Polish lawyer; and her mother, the former Malvina Decler, a Polish socialite. Maria was the middle child with two siblings. She attended boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and spent the winter of 1911 with her grandmother in Italy and on the French Riviera, where she was treated to her first taste of the Great Masters of Italian painting. In 1912, her parents divorced and Maria went to live with her wealthy Aunt Stefa in St. Petersburg, Russia. When her mother remarried, she became determined to break away to a life of her own. In 1913, at the age of fifteen, while attending the opera, Maria spotted the man she became determined to marry. She promoted her campaign through her well-connected uncle, and in 1916 she married Tadeusz Lempicki (1888-1951) in St. Petersburgâ€”a well-known ladies’ man, gadabout, and lawyer by title, who was tempted by the significant dowry. Her banker uncle provided the dowry, and Lempicki, who had no money of his own, was no doubt delighted to marry the beautiful sixteen-year old Tamara.
A year later, the Bolsheviks arrested Taduesz. Although only seventeen years old, Tamara pleaded for and ultimately secured her husband’s release. The Lempickis fled to Paris, where her family had also taken refuge, and there she became known as Tamara de Lempicka. However, there was domestic strain because Tadeusz proved either unwilling or unable to find suitable work.
In Paris, she studied art and became a much sought after portrait painter with a distinctive bold style that epitomizes the cool modernism of Art Deco. Between the wars, she painted portraits of writers, entertainers, artists, scientists, industrialists, and many of Eastern Europe’s exiled nobility. Her daughter, Kizette de Lempica-Foxhall, wrote in her biography of her mother: “She painted them all, the rich, the successful, the renowned -the best. And with many she also slept.” Tamara’s work brought her critical acclaim, social celebrity and considerable wealth.
For her painting, a portrait might take three weeks of work, allowing for the nuisance of dealing with a cranky sitter; by 1927-8 de Lempicka could charge 50,000 French francs per portrait (a sum equal to about US$2,000 thenâ€”perhaps ten times as much today).
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.
In 1925, she painted her iconic work Auto-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) for the cover of the German fashion magazine Die Dame. 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 beingâ€”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 Kizette on the Balcony.
During the Roaring 20s Paris, Tamara de Lempicka was very much a part of the bohemian life: she knew Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and AndrÃ© 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 often used formal and narrative elements in her portraits and nude studies to produce overpowering effects of desire and seduction. Her husband eventually tired of their arrangement and abandoned her in 1927. They were divorced in 1931 in Paris.
Obsessed with her work and her social life, de Lempicka neglected more than her husband; she rarely saw her daughter. When Kizette was not away at boarding school (France or England), the girl was often with her grandmother Malvina. When de Lempicka informed her mother and daughter that she would not be returning from America for Christmas in 1929, Malvina was so angry that she burned de Lempicka’s enormous collection of designer hats; Kizette watched them burn, one by one.
Kizette was neglected, but also immortalized. De Lempicka painted her only child repeatedly, leaving a striking portrait series: Kizette in Pink, 1926; Kizette on the Balcony, 1927; Kizette Sleeping, 1934; Portrait of Baroness Kizette, 1954-5, etc. In other paintings, the women depicted tend to resemble Kizette.
In 1928, her longtime patron the Baron Raoul Kuffner von DiÃ³szeg (1886-1961) 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 traveled 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.
De Lempicka continued both her heavy workload and her frenetic social life through the next decade. The Great Depression had little effect on her; in the early 1930s she was painting King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of Greece. Museums began to collect her works. In 1933 she traveled to Chicago where she worked with Georgia O’Keeffe, Santiago MartÃnez Delgado and Willem de Kooning. Her social position was cemented when she married her lover, Baron Kuffner, on 3 February 1934 in Zurich (his wife had died the year before). The Baron took her out of her quasi-bohemian life and finally secured her place in high society again, with a title to boot. She repaid him by convincing him to sell many of his estates in Eastern Europe and move his money to Switzerland. She saw the coming of World War II from a long way off, much sooner than most of her contemporaries. She did make a few concessions to the changing times as the decade passed; her art featured a few refugees and common people, and even a Christian saint or two, as well as the usual aristocrats and cold nudes.
In the winter of 1939, Tamara and the Baron started an “extended vacation” in the United States. 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 favorite artist of Hollywood stars. She cultivated a Garboesque manner. The Baroness 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 DalÃ quality, as displayed in Key and Hand, 1941. In 1943, the couple relocated to New York City. Even though she continued to live in style, socializing continuously, her popularity as a society painter had diminished greatly. They traveled to Europe frequently to visit fashionable spas and so that the Baron could attend to Hungarian refugee work. 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.
After the Baron’s death in 1962 from a heart attack on the ocean liner, Liberte, she moved to Houston to be near her daughter, Kizette, who was married to Harold Foxhall, Chief Geologist for the Dow Chemical Company. She began painting in a new style with a palette knife rather than a brush. These paintings were not well received, and she swore she would never exhibit her work again. However, others later exhibited her work and she continued to paint, storing her canvases, new and old, in an attic and a warehouse. Kizette served as her business manager, social secretary and factotum, but was ill treated and much affected by her mother’s controlling personality.
In 1966, the Musee des Arts Decoratifs mounted a commemorative exhibition in Paris called “Les Annees ’25″. Its success created the first serious interest in Art Deco. This inspired a young man named Alain Blondel to open the Galerie du Luxembourg and launch a major retrospective of Tamara de Lempicka. Her work was a revelation in the art world. Gradually, as Art Deco and figurative painting came into favor again, Tamara was rediscovered by the art world.
In 1978 she moved to Mexico permanently, buying a house in Cuernavaca called ‘Tres Bambus’, not far from Mexico City. Tamara de Lempicka died in her sleep on March 18, 1980 with her daughter Kizette at her side. Kizette, whose husband had died, attended her mother for the last three months, and according to her mother’s wishes, scattered her ashes on the top of the volcano Popocatepetl.
American singer-songwriter and actress Madonna is now a huge fan and collector of her work. She has lent out her paintings to events and museums. Madonna has also featured Lempicka’s artwork in her music videos for “Open Your Heart” (1987), “Express Yourself” (1989), “Vogue” (1990) and “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” (1998). She also used her paintings on the sets of her 1987 Who’s That Girl and 1990 Blond Ambition world tours. Other famous collectors include actor Jack Nicholson and singer-actress Barbra Streisand.
International Museum collections include Centre National dÂ´Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou en ParÃs, MusÃ©e dÂ´Art Moderne de Saint-Etienne, MÃ©tropole MusÃ©e dÂ´Art et dÂ´Historie de Saint-Denis, MusÃ©e dÂ´Art et dÂ´Industrie AndrÃ© Diligent in Roubaix, MusÃ©e DepartÃ©mental de lÂ´Oise in Beauvais, MusÃ©e des AnnÃ©es 30 in Boulogne-Billancourt, MusÃ©e des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, MusÃ©e Malraux in Le Havre, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie in Warsaw.
“Tamara de Lempicka”, Wikipedia
“Tamara de Lempicka”, Art Knowledge News
Biography from the Archives of AskART.