Tamara de Lempicka – Art Deco Glamour Girl

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.

Tamara_de_Lempicka

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!

Printemps:

de-lempicka-tamara-printemps-2406448

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:

lempicka-ladormeuse

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?

lempicka

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:

Lempicka- The Two Girlfriends, 1930

Another sexually-charged work, this is Andromeda:

lempicka-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:

tamara_de_lempicka_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:

lempicka-gloves

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.

21 thoughts on “Tamara de Lempicka – Art Deco Glamour Girl

  1. severnyproductions says:

    wow, what a life

  2. fredh1 says:

    Another female artist unjustly denigrated by a sexist art establishment, I think. They judged her schlocky, but is her work any less profound than, say, Modigliani’s or Leger’s? There is an art deco or even a pinup babe aesthetic, but it’s most interestingly combined with cubist elements. Look at the vitality and geometric complexity of the drapery in the last two pictures here. Maybe if she had left out the glamour-girl faces, the critics could have seen a great abstract painter.

    • artmodel says:

      Fred,

      As usual, you make outstanding points. And thanks for sticking up for the ladies! It’s disappointing how guilty the art establishment is in perpetuating the double standard. Especially back then.

      Like you, many people can see that Tamara knew exactly what she was doing, and consciously integrated the elements of Cubism into her work very skillfully. I like her aesthetic and well-defined feminine sensibility.

      You mentioned the glamour-girl faces, and I agree that they imbued a commercial, magazine cover, quasi-advertising quality to the work, which critics could pounce on to diminish the integrity of the works overall. But when I look those faces closely, they remind me a little of the Pre-Raphaelites. The first image “Printemps” in particular makes me think of Jane Morris and Lizzie Siddal.

      Thanks Fred, for giving props to Tamara. Ever confident and self-assured, she would definitely agree with you!

      Claudia

      • fredh1 says:

        I would have to agree with CSM is choosing Madame M as my favorite of the ones here. That one should definitely be a lesbian icon!

  3. ColdSilverMoon says:

    Very interesting post, Claudia. I must admit I was very unfamiliar with Tamara de Lempicka before reading this essay. I really like her work – lush with vibrant colors, and I really like the art deco/pin-up aesthetic Fred mentioned. I think Portrait de Madam M is my favorite, although I love the skin tones in Andromeda.

    Thanks for a great read!

    • artmodel says:

      ColdSilverMoon,

      Glad you enjoyed this! And I’m very happy to have introduced you to the life and work of Tamara de Lempicka.

      I can see why you’d pick “Portrait de Madam M” as a fave. It’s smooth and sophisticated, and what an expression on her face! I think my favorite is “Two Girlfriends”. I like the action and composition.

      And I agree with you about the flesh tones in “Andromeda”. I’ve never seen values like that in a painting before. They’re not Vermeer values that’s for sure, but they work strikingly and effectively for Tamara’s purposes.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  4. KL Foster says:

    Claudia,
    How beautifully told…I will openly admit that you made a tear or two well up at the end on this one.

  5. Years ago I first came across de Lempicka’s ‘Girl with gloves’, -which prompted me to seek out more of her works. However I’d not read much (read hardly anything) about her life till now. Thanks Claudia.

    BTW: You were lamenting, earlier, ’bout a slow season for modeling, have you considered teaching art appreciation classes or seminars? Shucky darn, just here in your blog you’ve enough data, created a more than sufficient body of work, for multi-semester courses!

  6. KL Foster says:

    To Jim in Alaska, I like the way you think.
    To Claudia, just imagine cracking the ruler over the very textbook that you wrote!

  7. fredh1 says:

    If KLF is seconding Jim’s idea, I’ll third it. You have a great way of making the old pictures come to life!

  8. Jennifer says:

    Lovely selection of painting! I’ve seen a few of her paintings, but great to see some more and fascinating to read about what seemed to be a very ‘artistic’ lifestyle. And then it all goes, in the way of things …

  9. kim shackleton says:

    just love tamaras work,have pictures of hers in my hairdressing salon .as well as at home.

  10. Patrick Maguire says:

    Just “found” Tamara. What a life and what an artist. You are absolutely correct about abstract expressionism …a get-out for those who do not have talent: These drummers and rappers who call themselves musicians

    • artmodel says:

      Patrick,

      I actually love Tamara even more since I wrote this post! Abstract expressionism, unfortunately, did usher some people of negligible talent into prominence. But there are some I appreciate very much – Gorky, de Kooning, etc.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  11. Justyna says:

    just to point out a minor mistake in the surname of her husband. It was Tadeusz Lempicki not Lempicka, since ‘i’ in Polish indicates a masculine form and ‘a’ female 🙂

    Great article by the way, wonder where exactly she was born, as different sources say different things… For sure she was Polish though.

  12. Justyna says:

    * a feminine form* not *female – oops..sorry!

    • artmodel says:

      Justyna,

      Thanks for the correction! And yes, that’s true about different sources having different information. Either way, though, Tamara’s work is fantastic.

      Glad you liked the post!

      Claudia

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