Paris Hilton. Kim Kardashian. These “socialite” rich girls today are such a joke. Vapid, stupid, aimless, annoying. They are faux free spirits. Inconsequential. Pathetic lightweights when you put them up against the Art Deco queen and trust-fund baby Tamara de Lempicka, a bold, determined sensualist driven by irrepressible desires, strong opinions, artistic passions and ambitions. She could eat Paris Hilton for lunch.
Tamara de Lempicka was born Maria Gorski in Warsaw, Poland in 1898, the middle child of three. Her father was a successful lawyer, her mother a socialite, and she enjoyed all the advantages of a privileged upbringing – the best boarding schools in Switzerland and vacations on the Riviera. It was during one of those European holidays that Tamara was first exposed to the great masters of Italian painting. When her parents divorced in 1912, 15 year-old Tamara went to live with relatives, her Aunt Stefa and rich banker uncle, in St. Petersberg, Russia.
Still in her teens and enjoying the bourgeois good life, Tamara met and fell in love with Taduesz Lempicka, a handsome bachelor and lawyer. They married in St. Petersberg, and Taduesz was all too happy to wed a pretty, free-spirited young lady with a substantial dowry. Just a year into the marriage, Taduesz was captured by the Bolsheviks in the middle of the night. Strong-willed and determined, Tamara searched for him for weeks, in every prison and every holding cell she could find. Eventually she located her husband, and through her charms, tenacity, and powers of persuasion, secured his release. They then fled to Paris, and that’s where the real fun begins!
In Paris they had a chid, a daughter named Kizette. But Taduesz’s law career went nowhere, and he seemed quite content to live off of Tamara’s money. She even sold off some of her inherited family jewels to help support them. Tamara’s art career, however, took off spectacularly. She made a name for herself through her cool, sleek sensual painting style, and soon came to epitomize the glamorous Art Deco “look”. Having an extensive circle of well-connected friends and colleagues also didn’t hurt her ascendancy in the art world. If Tamara wanted something, she got it, and used everything in her personal arsenal to make it happen. Let’s just say the woman knew how to network.
La Dormeuse, 1932:
Tamara was easily at home in the bohemian scene of 1920s Paris, and became well-acquainted with the usual suspects, like Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, and Pablo Picasso. But Tamara was more fond of Picasso’s friendship than his art which she famously said “embodies the novelty of destruction”. Ouch! She also slammed many of her predecessors, particularly the Impressionists, for using “dirty colors” and claimed they didn’t know how to draw. Ouch again! But Tamara wasn’t off the hook herself, as reviewers and critics had some choice words for her painting as well. They called her art “soft Cubism” and “perverse Ingrism”, a reference to the French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. I’m not sure exactly what’s meant by that last phrase but I don’t think it’s complimentary. Still, Tamara adhered to her belief that art should be beautiful to look at, with sexy, clean, elegant lines. And the critics’ remarks were irrelevant anyway. By the mid-1920s, Tamara was charging – and getting – 50,00 francs per commissioned portrait, the equivalent of 2,000 American dollars. That was a lot of money in those days!
Even if she wasn’t successful, something tells me that Tamara de Lempicka didn’t lose any sleep over criticism. Check out this next photo of her. Does this look like a woman who gives a damn what anybody thinks of her?
When Tamara wasn’t painting, she was immersed in any one of her many, many affairs. Openly bisexual, she aggressively pursued both men and women to satisfy her voracious sexual appetites. Among her female lovers were the British writers Violet Trefusis and Vita-Sackville West (who were also having an affair with each other), the French novelist Colette, and the famous nightclub singer and actress Suzy Solidor. Suzy, in fact, was a popular artist’s model too, and posed for the most prominent artists of the day, including Picasso, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Francis Picabia, and, of course, her lover Tamara de Lempicka.
Tamara expressed her liberated, uninhibited sexuality through her art in the same frank and candid fashion she did in life. This work from 1930, The Two Girlfriends, is a good example of her unabashed attitude:
Another sexually-charged work, this is Andromeda:
I’m all for a girl having a good time, and Tamara de Lempicka surely did! But a serious side effect of a self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking life is the potential (more often inevitable) neglect of loved ones, particularly children. That was the case, unfortunately, with Tamara and her daughter Kizette, who was sent off to boarding schools and pawned away to the care of relatives. Mother and daughter rarely saw each other, and Tamara played little part in Kizette’s upbringing. By 1927, Tamara’s husband Taduesz had become fed up with their marital arrangement. He left her and they were divorced the following year.
Portrait de Madame M:
In 1929, Tamara traveled to the United States where she continued to show her work and accept commissions. Her ever-expanding circle of friendships grew to include American-based artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Willem de Kooning. Tamara married again in 1933 to Baron Kuffner. Through this union she returned to her high society roots, but this time with a title. She was now a baroness, or the “baroness with a brush” as she was called. Tamara and her husband lived in Beverly Hills, California, where they hobnobbed with Hollywood movie stars like Tyrone Power and famed director King Vidor. They later moved to New York City’s east side, into a luxurious townhouse on 57th Street.
Girl With Gloves, 1929:
The year 1962 signified the beginning of the end for Tamara de Lempicka. First came the death of her husband. Then a poorly-received show at the Iolas Gallery in New York. Art Deco was long gone, you see. Abstract Expressionism made sure of that. So for Tamara the fall down from grace was a steep drop indeed. The bright lights dimmed swiftly, as they often do. Tamara retired from painting, sold many of her possessions, and went to live with her daughter Kizette who was now residing in Houston, Texas with her husband, an employee with the Dow Chemical Company, and their two children. The relationship between mother and daughter was strained to put it mildly. Tamara’s mood was often cranky and irascible, and her nonstop lamenting of the “good old days” tested Kizette’s patience.
By the 1970s, Tamara was living alone in Cuernavaca, Mexico, still embittered and unable to come to terms with old age and the loss of everything she used to know – art, success, celebrity, good times, and hedonistic abandon. Tamara de Lempicka died in her sleep on March 18, 1980. But she did not die alone. At her side when she passed was not a lover, an art dealer, or member of high society. It was her daughter Kizette.