“I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don‘t apply to those who live on the fringe.“
Tamara de Lempicka
Nearly a century later, her work is still admired by A-listers. Madonna, Jack Nicholson and the famous German designer Wolfgang Joop are collectors. Joop has dubbed Lempicka as the first Pop artist, and in 1994, her painting Adam and Eve, formerly owned by Barbara Streisand, sold at auction for $2 million. Her appeal to a wide audience, her celebrity, and her colorful life certainly do seem to have strains of Warhol. Her skill is undisputed, but Lempicka’s legacy is inextricably linked to her outsized personality. She is the first female art star.
“My goal is never to copy, but to create a new style, clear luminous colors and feel the elegance of the models.” Tamara de Lempicka
From an early age Lempicka possessed an unusual degree of self-confidence. When she was a young girl, she was critical of a finished portrait of herself. Determined that she could do a better job, she went to her room, availed herself of art supplies, and did. Despite this early display of artistic talent, she was groomed to marry well and to take her place in the upper echelons of Russian society. Her father was Russian and for the Polish beauty the ties to Russian society were strong. In 1916 she married a handsome Polish aristocrat whom she met while staying with her wealthy aunt in Saint Petersburg and gave birth to a daughter. The rise of the Bolsheviks changed the pair’s plans, and they decide to move west.
Lempicka’s story as an artist truly begins when the displaced family arrived in Paris with little of their former wealth. Not many penniless émigrés arriving in Paris were destined to gain entry to the upper echelons of Parisian society, but Lempicka was as formidable as the people portrayed in her neo-Cubist portraits. Her husband, Tadeusz Lempicka, never fully recovered from his internment by the secret police, and it fell upon Lempicka to support the family. Undaunted, she followed her sister’s suggestion that she put her talent to use and pick up the paint brush professionally. The determined young woman signed up for lessons and soon established the trajectory of a new, extremely successful life. By painting the social elite, she gained reentry to the levels of society to which she was accustomed. Lempicka famously said that she made her first million by the time she was 28-years old. Eventually, she would become known as the “Baroness of the Brush”.
“ Mind the precision. A painting has to be neat and clean.” Tamara de Lempicka
The support of a wealthy aunt and uncle who also made it to Paris enabled Lempicka to study art with Maurice Denis and then André Lhote at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Maurice Denis was a founding member of the Nabis movement, but it was Lhote who exerted the most influence on Lempicka’s art. She combined his neo-Cubist forms with her love of Renaissance classicism creating her own unique style. Her exceptional technical ability enabled her to blaze a path outside of the groups forming in 20th-century modernism. She attributed the singularity of her paintings to her success, saying, “Among a hundred paintings you could always recognize mine.” Lempicka’s work ethic was admirable. She routinely spent 8 hours a day in the studio and painted many of her masterpieces in three weeks. She also painted her favorite pieces numerous times. My Portrait to the left is an example as it is almost an exact replica of an earlier piece titled Autoportrait.
Two events in 1925 catapulted Lempicka to art stardom: her participation in the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts which launched the Art Deco style and era, and an exhibition in Milan which introduced her to the ruling class and displaced royalty of Europe she would become famous for painting. Her work appeared in publications like Harper’s Bazaar, and the German fashion magazine Die Dame commissioned a cover that would become a lasting icon of both the era and Lempicka’s career: Autoportrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti). The image quickly became an iconic representation of the new, modern woman. In the roaring twenties, women were giddy with newfound freedoms like driving, and Autoportrait captures Lempicka at the helm of a fast, expensive Italian car complete with a rippling scarf and helmet. The artist looked like a cross between Marlena Dietrich and Amelia Earhart — beautiful, adventurous and definitely in control.
Despite the overarching influence of the Renaissance masters, the people in Lempicka’s portraits look like they were seeded by the skyscrapers behind them — cool, modern and dominating their environment. The women are voluptuous amazons, and the men exude the power of those who rule. Painted in smooth sculpted forms that belong to the modern age of machines, her works are as commanding as the woman who made them.
The artist came to the attention of Dr. Pierre Boucard, whose invention of Lacteol, a drug that is still widely used in France today, resulted in immense wealth. This new benefactor underwrote the early stage of her career with numerous commissions. His patronage was a key introduction to her future clientele. Boucard was an active participant in the glittering society of the 20s, and numerous photos record Lempicka’s patron behind the wheel of a Rolls Royce or sipping martinis with the aristocrats Lempicka would paint.
“I have painted Kings and prostitutes, ... I don’t paint people because they are famous. I paint those who inspire me and make me vibrate.“ Tamara de Lempicka
Outside of creating beautiful celebrity portraits, Lempicka flaunted her sexuality and painted many seductive paintings of women. Often her models became her lovers. Lempicka was so drawn to the beauty of Rafaela, the model for The Pink Tunic, that she approached her after seeing her during a walk in the Bois de Boulogne. According to Lempicka she said, “Mademoiselle, I’m a painter and I would like you to pose for me. Would you do this?” She says, “Yes why not?” and I say, “Yes, come. My car is here.” Her paintings of Rafaela are among her most sexual. Their interaction lasted for more than a year.
Tamara Lempicka: Public Image and Private Life
All of this took a toll on her marriage; in 1928, Taduzca and Lempicka divorced, and her portrait of Taduska, Portrait of a Man, was left unfinished. Working on it when the marriage dissolved, the artist never finished his left hand — which notably lacks a wedding band. Despite her numerous public affairs, she was distraught and went into deep depression. After this, Lempicka’s mother took over the raising of Kizette, with Lempicka appearing when it was convenient.
Her relationship with Kizette was intense if unconventional. Kizette herself said, “We lived separate lives.” Indeed, many of Lempicka’s lifelong friends were not even aware she had a daughter. Kizette recalled that her mother was not always easy to be around, but her dynamic personality was extremely engaging. She looked forward to the weeks she spent with her mother, and noted that every time Lempicka sold a painting, she would take Kizette on a trip. For a glorious week or two, Kizette was what mattered. Despite the distance, their attachment to each other was strong. Speaking of her mother, Kizette said, “We were very close.”
In 1928 or 1929, Baron Raoul Kuffner commissioned Lempicka to paint a portrait of his mistress. A few years later when his wife died, it was Lempicka that became his wife. Born to a Jewish father, she was alarmed by the events in Germany, and she encouraged the Baron to move to America. In 1939, he fortuitously transferred his holdings to Switzerland and they sailed for New York on the SS Paris to attend a solo exhibition for Lempicka at the Paul Reinhardt Gallery in New York. Kizette was left behind. Lempicka would use her connections to get her daughter out of occupied France, and Kizette remained in the United States, eventually settling in Houston, Texas.
It all reads like a 1940s movie starring Bettie Davis, and the glamour shots of Lempicka and her sleek apartments add to the impression. Indeed, she and Baron Raoul Kuffner lived in Hollywood where she entertained, had grand openings attended by a myriad of Hollywood and Los Angeles celebrities, and became the “Baroness of the Brush”.
After the war, American Expressionism took off and Lempicka refused to follow suit. She experimented with abstraction where her early influences of Cubism are combined with the rhythmic interplay of shapes that exists in her portraits. She also produced still lifes including florals. Through it all she never quit painting. In the 60s, she experienced another round of fame, with a very successful retrospective at the Galerie de Luxembourg in 1971.
Her last years were spent between Houston, Texas with her daughter Kizette and Mexico. A diva to the end, she requested that her ashes were scattered over Mount Popocateptl. Lempicka captured her era in a style that is uniquely her own and unabashedly lived a life beyond accepted conventions. In doing so, she carved a path for other female artists that lived up to the bravado and promise of her Autoportrait - independent and at the wheel. From her time in Saint Petersburg to Los Angeles and Mexico, Lempicka's life story and works of fine art have left lasting influences in the world of creativity.
“I think it’s important to know that she was a complete artist, a true artist. She tried many different things like many artists and she should be recognized for everything.” Marisa de Lempicka, great-granddaughter of Tamara de Lempicka
If you’re star-struck by Tamara Lempicka and her works of fine art, browse our collection to find a work that speaks to you.
Kraut, Lauren. “My Great-Grandmother Tamara de Lempicka: An Interview with Marisa de Lempicka” Daily Art Magazine, June 18, 2022, https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/interview-with-marisa-de-lempicka/. October 24, 2022.
Tamara de Lempicka, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2004 Contributing authors: Alain Blondel, Ingried Brugger, Tag Gronberg.
“About Kizette, Tamara‘s daughter.” delempicka.org Afin e. U., 2020, https://www.delempicka.org/kizette-de-lempicka-foxhall/ P October 29, 2022.
Taggart, Emma. “The Rollercoaster Life of an Iconic Art Deco Painter Known as ”The Baroness with a Brush“”. mymodernmet, August, 29, 2019. https://mymodernmet.com/tamara-de-lempicka/ October 29, 2022.
Loughery, John. Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, 1988, pp. 55–55. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1358328. Accessed 11 Oct. 2022.
“Leader of city’s 1950s international set Foxhall, dies”. Houston Chronicle Online, May 8, 2021, https://www.chron.com/news/houston-deaths/article/Leader-of-city-s-1950s-international-set-Foxhall-2037689.php. November 2, 2022.