Chances are you've seen her work somewhere. Maybe on a Christmas card, or framed in a restaurant. Certainly her style is a case of 'once seen, never forgotten'. But you may never have known her name, or anything about her. Until now. Sit back, put your feet up, grab a cocktail and prepare to enter the unusual and fascinating world of Tamara de Lempicka - art's first glamorous star and a woman born way ahead of her time.
"I live life in the margins of society,
and the rules of normal society
don't apply to those
who live on the fringe."
She was born Maria Gorska on May 16th 1898 in Warsaw. Her parents were well off financially but they divorced and the young Maria was raised by her grandmother - a wealthy woman who spoiled her. Maria lived with her in St Petersburg, travelled widely, wore beautiful clothes, enjoyed a Parisian and Swiss education and enough freedom to develop a clear idea of who she wanted to be, what she wanted and the unstoppable self-confidence and determination to get it.
War broke out in 1914 and soon after, she fell in love with Tadeusz Lempicki - a handsome lawyer also originally from Warsaw. They married in 1916, when Tamara was already pregnant with their daughter, Kizette. They lived in Russia, but their time there was cut short in 1918, with the October Revolution, and they fled, as refugees, to Copenhagen, London and then Paris. Maria had studied art there as a young girl and now, with the need to earn money increasingly urgent, she took up painting seriously. Her distinctive style - in the fashionable Art Deco tradition - earned her sales, although, until 1925, she signed her works using the masculine form of her name - Lempicki. She became a well known portrait painter and between the wars painted writers, artists, musicians and a host of celebrities and exiled nobility.
Her first major show, under the patronage of Count Emmanuele Castelbargo, took place in Milan in 1925. To prepare for this, Tamara painted 28 new works within six months, in her distinctive clear, vivid style. Now she mixed in circles including Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Andre Gide. She discovered and embraced a bohemian lifestyle and indulged her bisexuality in liaisons with Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis and French author, Colette. She also conducted an affair with a night club singer called Suzy Solidor. Her behaviour was anything but discreet and caused major scandals at the time
On one of many notorious occasions, and possibly fuelled by cocaine, she was dancing with an attractive woman in a nightclub. She told her amused audience that she was assessing her as a possible model and began to undress her - in public. She fondled the woman's breasts and pronounced them to be 'round enough'. Then she thrust her hand between the woman's legs. She shook her head, in mock regret. "Too wet," she said. "How is an artist to concentrate?"
In 1925, she painted her self-portrait, Auto-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) which has been widely printed, and today represents an iconic image of the whole Art Deco period and style. Tamara frequently painted nudes, injecting eroticism and sensuality into every brushstroke.
By 1927, her lifestyle and numerous affairs with both men and women had put an intolerable strain on her marriage and Tadeusz left her. They were divorced in 1931, right at the peak of her success. But Tamara was far from finished yet. Her fame brought her considerable wealth and she found her second husband in the form of her longtime lover, Baron Raoul Kuffner. The couple were married in 1934 and moved to Beverly Hills and then to New York, in 1943, where she continued to paint in her own distinctive style for a few more years.
The end of the Second World War saw Tamara return to Paris to reopen her studio in the rue Mechain, which she redorated in rococo style. Soon afterwards, friends started asking her to decorate their apartments in New York and a new career was born.
The Baron died in 1962 and Tamara moved to Houston to be closer to her daughter. At that time, she changed her style and began painting abstracts with a palette knife - popular at the time. Sadly the galleries weren't too impressed. One - the Iolas, in New York - did mount an exhibition, but it wasn't well received and Tamara vowed never to exhibit again. By now, increasingly forgotten and ignored, she continued to pain, but just stored the paintings away in an attic and warehouse.
|Auto Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti)|
Meanwhile, art's first glamour girl was losing her looks and mourning their loss, preferring to surround herself with young people.
She did however live long enough to see a revival in interest in her work, which accompanied a general revival in Art Deco's lost fortunes. An exhibition at the newly opened Galerie de Luxembourg in 1972 was followed by an invitation by the Knoedler Gallery in New York. Unfortunately, her advancing age had done nothing to stem Tamara's cantankerous and obstinate personality. Her imperious demands on how the exhibition was to be mounted, resulted in the curate of the gallery withdrawing the offer.
Tamara de Lempicka became increasingly difficult as old age curtailed her lifestyle. She died in her sleep in 1980, in Mexico, where she had moved a couple of years earlier. Her longsuffering daughter, Kizette, was at her side and ensured her wish to have her ashes scattered at the top of the volcano, Popocatapetl, was carried out.
Tamara de Lempicka's philosophy of life was that, "an artist should try everything." In her 81 years, she came pretty close!
For more information on the artist, her life and work, visit her official website:
Judith Mackrell has also written her story: Tamara's Story