Tamara de Lempicka - Biography and Legacy
Polish-Russian, French, American Painter
Warsaw, Poland (then Russia)
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.