Why Tamara de Lempicka’s Glamorous Portraits Transfix Contemporary Audiences
By Alexxa Gotthardt
A 1-minute, 30-second documentary from 1932 shows painter Tamara de Lempicka moving languidly through her chrome-plated Art Deco apartment on Paris’s rue Méchain.
In one shot, she sketches cabaret singer Suzy Solidor, who’s posing in nothing but a conveniently placed sheet. In another, the artist smokes and throws off her shawl, while a suited man serves her dinner. The segment’s message is clear: This is Lempicka’s royaume.
Titled Un bel atelier moderne (“A Modern Studio”), the film ran as part of the series “Actualités féminines” (“Women’s News”) by the Pathé network. At the time, Lempicka represented the apotheosis of a modern, ostensibly liberated woman—in 1930s proto-feminist parlance, a garçonne,or a woman who rebelled against traditional female domesticity and fashion. (A direct translation of the word reads something like “boyish girl.”) Lempicka shrewdly cultivated this model in both her life and her work: She not only supported herself through painting, but the most mesmerizing of her canvases show strong, boldly sensual, sometimes queer women, their swooping curves and taut muscles radiating the bulletproof shine of Art Deco.
This high-gloss figuration—and the artist’s decadent lifestyle, which she used to promote it—have been abundantly criticized over the last century. In a 2004 review of an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, British critic Waldemar Januszczak derided her as “a liar, a snob, and a fraud from the off.” A recent Artforum review described her work’s “adamantine glamour tainted with the bad smell of mercenary kitsch.”
While Januszczak had a point (Lempicka’s autobiographical accounts were full of augmentation), assessments like these overlook her irreverent stylistic fusion, her reshaping of the female nude, and her use of portraiture to claim space for female subjects and herself. “My goal was never to copy, but to create a new style,” she once said. As early as age 25, she even devised her own self-prophesizing motto: “There are no miracles. There is only what you make.”
Lempicka’s story is indeed one of self-invention. While her flair for mythmaking has blurred accurate biographical details, most historians agree that she was born in 1898 in Warsaw, Poland. (She told some her birth year was as late as 1907 and her birthplace was Moscow.) Her father, the well-to-do attorney Boris Gorksi, moved the family to Saint Petersburg, Russia, when she was young. Her school years were punctuated by a particularly influential six-month tour through Italy with her aristocratic grandmother in 1911, when Lempicka was 13. “All of [a] sudden in the museums, I saw paintings done in the 15th century by Italians,” she later remembered.
“Why did I like them? Because they were so clear, they were so neat.” Already, Lempicka was attracted to the saturated hues and sharp, delineated forms of the Italian Mannerists, such as Bronzino , who would eventually influence her style.
But before turning to painting, Lempicka met a young lawyer in Saint Petersburg, Tadeusz Lempicki. She was still a teenager when they married in 1916 and had a daughter, Kizette. Parties replete with champagne and caviar defined the early days of their marriage, but the Russian Revolution brought frivolities to a fast close in 1917. After Lempicki was jailed, then released at Lempicka’s insistent urging, the family fled to Denmark and finally landed in Paris the following year.
In Paris, Lempicki was out of work and depressed, and while Lempicka sold all of her jewels, their spoils quickly ran dry. She turned to her sister, Adrienne, who had also relocated to Paris and taken up the garçonne lifestyle, enrolling herself in architecture school. She gave Lempicka blunt advice: Find a career, so you don’t have to rely on your husband. Lempicka would later recall that she went out to buy paper and sable brushes on the spot.
Tamara de Lempicka, Young Lady with Gloves, 21st Century
print on paper 21 × 28 in 53.3 × 71.1 cm -ARTSY
While Lempicka liked to insist she was largely self-taught, 1920s Paris offered bountiful options for art instruction, of which she took full advantage. Starting in 1918, she studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière with Les Nabis member and former Symbolist Maurice Denis, from whom she gleaned a palette of sultry hues and a graphic approach to representation. The following year, she took courses at the Académie Ranson, established by the Fauvist painter Paul Ranson. She spent hours at the Louvre, too, and went on long sketching binges fueled by cigarettes and booze. Her most influential instructor was André Lhote, a Fauvist who’d turned to the Synthetic branch of Cubism.
Tamara de Lempicka, La Tunique Rose, 1927,
28 5/8 by 45 3/4 in. 72.6 by 116.3 cm
Through his teachings, her forms acquired weight, solidity, and the fractured planes and figurative distortions of Cubism. Her style was also inspired by her infatuations with Italian Mannerists, such as Pontormo; French Neoclassicists, like Ingres; the sharp Art Deco edges of her time; and the female nude. In the 2018 tome The Art of Feminism: Images that Shaped the Fight for Equality, 1857-2017, writers Lucinda Gosling, Hilary Robinson, and Amy Tobin characterize this rare amalgamation: “Formed from small, geometric planes, [Lempicka’s] figures, set against granite-like cityscapes, loom large on the canvas in a sensual riot of multifaceted voluptuousness.”
By 1922, Lempicka was rubbing elbows with the Parisian avant-garde; it was likely during her early years in Paris when she added the aristocratic “de” to her surname, bolstering the mystique around her biography. She was a regular at famed literary salons like those of American poet Natalie Barney, where, according to a 1999 New York Times article, Lempicka “sniffed cocaine and drank sloe gin fizzes laced with hashish among the likes of André Gide.”
Lempicka loved “art and high society in equal measure,” as Jean Cocteau —also a regular at these gatherings—once recalled. “I live on the fringe of society,” she herself asserted, “and the rules of normal society have no currency for those on the fringe.”
It was in this hedonistic, raucously experimental environment that she met the subjects and patrons of her early paintings, three of which were selected for the 1922 Salon d’Automne exhibition, a renowned showcase of contemporary art. In her studio, Lempicka moved between portraits of the European elite and voluminous nudes whose bodies boldly consumed the entire picture plane. While her 1925 canvases Nude on a Terrace and Group of Four Nudes recall the compositions of Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814) and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)—two works powered by the male gaze—they assert a female and even homoerotic perspective that was unique at the time.
Tamara de Lempicka, Auto Portrait, (Green Bugatti’, self-portrait)
serigraph 31 3/4 × 24 1/2 in 80.6 × 62.2 cm -ARTSY
Lempicka was likely aware of this complexity, manipulating it to her advantage. As historian Paula Birnbaum wrote in The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars (2003), “Painting the nude presented her with a means for proclaiming a professional identity within the patriarchal codes of Western art history as well as for evoking female agency on her own terms.” Critic Arsène Alexandre described the “perverse Ingrism” of her work at the 1928 Salon d’Automne, a review Lempicka relished.
Some works like Group of Four Nudes and Myrto (1929), where women caress one another, manifest Lempicka’s own erotic desires (she had multiple lesbian relationships during her life), as well as her willingness to turn the traditional male gaze on its head. Paintings such as La Tunique Rose (1927) and La Belle Rafaela (1927) directly answer earlier precedents such as Mane’s Olympia (1865).
The Impressionist’s masterpiece proposes the penetrating stare of a young female prostitute as a threat to male dominance over women. In Lempicka’s case, the artist’s model for both pictures was also a sex worker, Rafaela, who became her lover after the two crossed paths in Bois de Boulogne. Contrary to Manet, Lempicka celebrates female sexuality and allure in her depictions of Rafaela, presenting her as virile, voluptuous, and in full control of her own pleasure; in La Belle Rafaela, the subject twists in delight as her hand grasps her own breast. Lempicka’s odalisque has agency.
As Birnbaum has suggested, “The implications of [Rafaela’s] identity suggest that Lempicka was literally reframing Manet’s relationship between heterosexual male artist and viewer and object of his gaze—the female prostitute—as an explicitly female artist’s (and viewer’s) desire for the female model, prostitute, and potential lover.” In other words, Lempicka was responding to centuries of male-dominated art history by putting forth her own female gaze.
While the mid-1920s marked Lempicka’s rise as a successful, self-sufficient artist, the late 1920s and early ’30s brought the apex of her renown. Her famed 1929 self-portrait Tamara in the Green Bugatti embodies the artist’s self-confidence and signature style at their most potent.
Commissioned as the cover of German fashion magazine Die Dame, it depicts Lempicka in the driver’s seat of a luxury car, that proverbial symbol of independence and financial success. Her gaze is intent and her costume androgynous, the edges of fabric so sharp and shiny, it’s difficult to distinguish them from her metal chariot. The year before she painted the work, Lempicka and her husband divorced. While she mourned the loss of Lempicki, this picture also speaks to the artist’s self-sufficiency and newly won freedom.
While some critics derided the hard-edged bodies of Lempicka’s painting, comparing them to vacuous mannequins, others saw hot-blooded vigor in their monumental forms, bursting musculature, and militaristic ensembles. “Her art is not cold despite its precision,” wrote one reviewer in 1930. “Her portraits are alive and even hallucinatory.” Into the early 1930s, commissions of portraits and erotic nudes continued to flood her studio, that luxurious Art Deco apartment on rue Méchain. Word of her work even traveled to the U.S., where the wealthy began ordering pictures.
But by 1933, with the Western economy suffering from the Great Depression, work began to dry up, and Lempicka fell into a period of melancholy and idleness. With a new husband, Baron Raoul Kuffner, she moved to the U.S. in 1939, but the works she made there—saccharine religious pictures, disingenuous images of peasants, and even a number of Abstract Expressionist compositions—never drew interest.
With the passing of Art Deco went the fashionability of Lempicka’s signature work. “Lempicka is irredeemably linked to her era—a fairly short period, let’s say a decade or so, between ’25 and ’35,” French curator and gallerist Alain Blondel explained in a 2009 BBC documentary. “In some ways, it’s the secret of her success, but it’s also the limit of her achievement.”
Lempicka moved from California to New York to Mexico, and lived long enough to see a resurgence of interest in her work, sparked by a 1972 solo exhibition organized by Blondel at Paris’s renowned Musée du Luxembourg. When Lempicka died in 1980, the myths she built around her life and art practice punctuated even her obituaries. An obituary in the New York Times explained that Lempicka had “reportedly earned $1 million by paintings [in the 1920s],” an unconfirmed figure the artist was known to promote. The piece also described Lempicka’s late years in Mexico, where “she affected lavender costumes and had her…home painted in lavender as well.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, Lempicka’s paintings—along with the myths that swirled around them—drew in the Hollywood set. Madonna, Jack Nicholson, and Barbra Streisand all scooped up canvases. More recently, the value of Lempicka’s work has bloomed on the secondary market.
The year 2004 saw the first major auction record of her work, when the striking Portrait de Mrs. Bush (1929) went for nearly $5 million at Christie’s, over $3 million above its estimate.Prices for similarly impressive works have only mounted over time. In late 2019, Lempicka’s iconic La Tunique Rose (1927) achieved over $13 million at Sotheby’s, craning far beyond its high estimate of $8 million.
This record was swiftly smashed several months later, in February 2020, when Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (1932) went for over £16 million (the equivalent of over $20 million at the time of writing) at Christie’s. As critic Susan Moore has speculated of this vertiginous ascent, “It is tempting to see Tamara de Lempicka’s appeal now in context of the current interest both in women painters and in queer art, as well as the wider appeal of easy-on-the-eye figuration.
”Indeed, Lempicka’s portraits and nudes from the early 20th century remain the most vibrant facet of her legacy—testaments to her shrewd business acumen, stylistic rebelliousness, daring sensuality, and unflagging self-determination. “I was the first woman who did clear painting—and that was the success of my painting,” she once asserted. “Among a hundred paintings, you could recognize mine. And the galleries began to put me in the best rooms, always in the center, because my painting attracted people.”