Let me start by saying the Tamara de Lempicka is a LOT. She has a riches to rags and back to riches story that took her from Poland to Paris to the United States; she went around the world several times and eventually ended up in – a volcano? Seriously, she did.
She was controversial from start to finish, did whatever the hell she wanted to, and she sure didn’t care what anyone thought. It was everything a modern woman of the 1920s could aspire to be! I’ll do my best to capture all the twists and turns, but first…
Born on May 16, 1898 in Warsaw, Poland. Her father was a Jewish lawyer and her mother was a wealthy Polish aristocrat. Her parents later divorced, but Tamara’s grandmother spoiled her and she enjoyed frequent travel around Europe. This included six months in Italy in 1911 at age 13 where she was first exposed to the influence of Italian art. In 1912 she spent the summer with her wealthy aunt in St. Petersburg, where she later met her future husband.
In was in 1915 when she met Tadeusz Lempicki, a prominent, but indigent attorney. They were married the following year, with Tadeusz receiving a large dowry from Tamara’s uncle. What’s interesting here is that you will read in many articles that Tamara was 16 when she got married. However if she did get married in 1916, she would have been 18. Some articles include both of these “facts” without pointing out (or perhaps not noticing) the discrepancy.
If you decide read up on Tamara de Lempicka, know that she herself tended to stretch the truth when talking about her own life – making herself younger and sometimes older to suit her narrative. She had a flair for embellishing stories about her lifestyle and her many escapades. This is one of many things that made her a controversial figure, attracting both admiration and criticism.
How She Really Got Tadeusz Out of Prison
When the Russian Revolution began in 1917, Tamara’s family fled while she stayed behind with her husband. Bolsheviks raided their home in the middle of the night, “ransacking” the place and arresting Tadeusz.
Let’s stop here and point some things out (again). This is the part where Tamara gets her husband out of prison and I almost did what most other articles do and glaze over the facts of how she did that. Most of the time when you read about this part it’s a sentence or two about how she worked the system or talked him out of there. Then I came across this article. They do an excellent job of pointing out how other authors have described what really happened.
The point is, Tamara had to have sex with some people to get this done. If you think about it, what else did she really have at her disposal? What power would this young woman in need have had against men in positions of authority? Of the articles I’ve read, it was described as “securing his release”, “using her good looks to charm favors”, “braving the Russian Revolution”, “insistent urging”, and “giving her favors”.
She was taken advantage of by officials in the Swedish Consul. Period.
The Flight to Paris
Tamara and Tadeusz fled to Copenhagen, then London, and finally settled in Paris. They had no money and Tadeusz was depressed and would not find work. After she had her daughter Kizette, Tamara sold all of her jewels and started painting to bring in money at the suggestion of her sister.
Tamara painting Tadeusz. They look so happy together! 1928.
Despite criticisms of her as an artist – first for being a poor woman working for rich clients and later as “frivolous” after she found success – Tamara threw herself into her art. It’s said she painted for up to twelve hours per day until she was able to build her wealth. Tamara soon became known for her distinct Art Deco style portraits.
Once her income was stable she had more time to spend painting for herself. She also had the time for a busy and exciting social life. This included parties with the elite and affairs with both men and women. By this time Tamara was a known bisexual and made no effort to hide her affairs from her husband. She also began to explore her personal preferences and her view of strong, independent women through her art. The figures were not typical ideals of beauty. They were powerful in their varied body shapes and expressive compositions. She did not shy away from queer representation in her work, adding to the list of scandalous rumors about her.
By now the 1920s were in full swing. The popularity of Art Deco was increasing as quickly as the consumers’ hunger for luxury and hedonism. Marked by modern, industrial lines and bold geometry, Art Deco represented a look toward the future – technology, pleasure, and social progress. Color schemes featured a selection precious metal hues and expensive jewel tones supported by muted accents such as creams and beiges or bold backgrounds of black or navy. You’ll notice in Tamara’s work that she tended to pick a jewel to be the star of the palette used softer skin tones and cream colors with a pop of complementary color. Paired with her unique style, it made her subjects look relaxed, but expensive.
Kizette on the Balcony. 1927.
Tamara de Lempicka’s Style
So how did she develop the style that brought her so much sucess? Tamara most certainly had exposure to many art styles during her travels through out Europe as a girl. Later she liked to say she was self-taught, but she did pursue an education while she was in Paris. Enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, she was able to delve further into the works of masters such as Bronzino.
Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo. Agnolo Bronzino. 1543.
This is where her work took on a notable Mannerist influence, where style is more important than realistic representation. It’s no wonder she incorporated Mannerism into her painting as it was the perfect complement to the Art Deco movement.
Tamara also studied at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts. It’s unclear who she studied under at each academy because every source is telling this part different. What’s consistent is that she studied under Maurice Denis and André Lhote. Denis was primarily a decorative painter “who instilled the sense of discipline and structure in her work.” Lhote was a cubist with a softer style, from whom she adopted a slight geometry in her figurative work.
The Musician (Blue Woman with a Guitar), 1929
She blended these influences with her flair and sense of style effortlessly. The figures are strong, yet supple. Her compositions are an amalgamation techniques past and present, with a keen eye on the future. One painting in particular, Women Bathing, is a perfect example of this. Described as “the Left Bank lesbian version of Ingres’s luscious harem composition The Turkish Bath”, she applied her own disregard for societal norms to her own painting style that appealed to the bourgeoisie. It certainly invited yet more rumors and scandal, but any exposure is good exposure – especially in the art world.
Women Bathing, 1929
Famous Tamara de Lempicka Works
When I first sat down to write about Tamara de Lempicka, her work felt familiar. I just couldn’t place it! It seems like she has a fair number of works out there that many people have seen that perhaps don’t know who the artist was.
The first one that often gets pointed out as her most famous is Autoportrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti). This 1929 self-portrait was commissioned for the cover of Die Dame, a German fashion magazine. Tamara depicted herself driving a Bugatti, a “blonde curl edging out of the head-hugging Hermès helmet”. She wears long leather driving gloves and a long gray scarf that whips behind her. Her pouty red lips against her pale skin make her icy stare alluring, but inaccessible.
The soft hues of her clothing contrasting with the cold metallic surface of the car suggest the speed and luxuriousness of this drive. That she is a woman driving at a time when not many did demonstrates her independence. She looks straight at you, as if issuing a dare you would be foolish to take.
Self-Portrait in the Green Bugatti. 1929.
If Autoportrait didn’t give you a little déjà vu, perhaps you caught a glimpse of her work in a music video! Tamara’s paintings were featured in two of Madonna’s music videos and many more Madonna videos make reference to the artist. Madonna is a big fan of her painting and even has her own collection of the Tamara’s work.
In the very beginning of Open Your Heart you see Tamara’s paintings adorning the outside of a theater. And did you see the paintings on easels in the beginning of Vogue? Those are Tamara de Lempicka’s too!
The United States
Art Deco peaked around 1925 and began to wane in the late 1920s. It was round this time that Tamara de Lempicka’s popularity peaked. By the 1930s, interest in the style gave way to a desire for art that represented the harsh realities of the Great Depression.
In 1928, Tamara and Tadeusz separated due to her numerous and very public affairs. In 1933 she married Baron Raoul Kuffner, a nobleman with a portfolio of estates and businesses. Once Tamara became the Baroness Kuffner, she began to lose her way. The art style that brought her so much success was no longer viable. She tried to turn to new subject matter – reserved religious figures and dowdy old men in place of beautiful lesbians and the wealthy elite – but it was poorly received.
Beggar with Mandolin, 1935
To make matters worse, World War II was on the horizon. Out of concern the safety of her family and its assets, Tamara urged her husband to liquidate his assets in Hungary so they could move to America. In 1939, they made the move to Los Angeles. Tamara showed her work at several prominent galleries, but the outcome was not what she had hoped.
Kizette arrived in LA separately after fleeing France through Lisbon. She married a Texan and left to live with him while her mother moved to New York City. Although her commissions dwindled, Tamara still found work. She also spent her time maintaining her busy social life.
Tamara would go on to try different styles over the decades, sometimes changing older paintings, but ultimately she kept repainting the same compositions that brought her success. Autoportrait was repainted twice. She repainted her depiction of St. Anthony three times, the final version being the last painting she ever did.
The 1960s Resurgence of Art Deco
After the Baron died in 1962, Tamara took THREE trips around the world before moving to Houston to be closer to her daughter. She started painting with only a palette knife because it was trendy way to paint at the time. Again, her new art didn’t do well, but she continued to paint anyway.
In 1966, the Musee des Arts Decoratifs held a commemorative exhibition in Paris, launching a renewed interest in Art Deco. This lead other galleries around the world to do the same, bring Tamara de Lempicka back into the spotlight. She enjoyed a new interest in her work, but missed out an an exhibition opportunity thanks to her own arrogance. Her painting still made a come back and continues to be popular with Art Deco enthusiasts.
In the 1970s, Tamara de Lempicka moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico. Kizette also moved to Mexico after her husband died to take care of her mother. After a few years of declining health, Tamara de Lempicka passed away in her sleep. Per her last wishes, she was cremated and her ashes were spread at the top of the Popocatepetl volcano.
Tamara de Lempicka’s final resting place. Seriously.
I’m going to end with a quote that stood out to me while researching this post. It speaks to the tenacity with which Tamara worked for her career. She put every part of herself into everything that she did. She lost everything, got it all back, and made it her own. We are all a combination of luck and effort, leaving us each to strike our balance in seeking opportunity and overcoming adversity:
“There are no miracles. There is only what you make.”
–Tamara de Lempicka, 1923