The glamour star of Art Deco

     For many designers, the bold bright colors and geometric designs of Art Deco (“Arts Decoratifs”), which reached its peak in the Roaring 20s, represent the best and purest forms of that art period.  Of all the artists who pursued the Art Deco style, the most memorable may be Tamara De Lempicka.  Born in 1895 in Moscow (she preferred to say she was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1902) to a wealthy and prominent family, she has been called the “first woman artist to be a glamour star.”  She was also a world-class liar, a termagant, a vainglorious socialite, and possibly one of the 20th century’s most important artists.

     Tamara’s wealthy grandmother spoiled the beautiful young girl with travel and clothing.   When she was 14 her grandmother sent her to boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and after her parents’ divorce she spent time in St. Petersburg, Russia, with her Aunt Stephanie, whose husband was a millionaire.  After enjoying the high life with her relatives, Tamara decided this was the life for her, and immediately set out to get it.

     At age 15, while attending the opera, she saw a man she became determined to marry.  This was Tadeusz Lempicki, a lawyer by title but also a well-known ladies man and society gadabout.  They were married in St. Petersburg in 1916 with Tamara’s banker uncle providing a handsome dowry.  Lempicki, who had no money of his own, was delighted to marry a beautiful 16-year-old girl with plenty of money included.

     A year later during the Russian revolution, Tadeusz arrested by Bolsheviks in the dead of night.  Maria bravely searched the prisons for him, using her charm and good looks to get favors from the necessary officials.  After several weeks, with the help of the Swedish consul, she found Tadeusz and got him out of the country.  They fled to Paris, France, where Tamara’s family had escaped and relocated.

     The couple lived in Paris on money from the sale of family jewels.  Tamara, now known as “Tamara De Lempicka” studied art and worked day and night.  Her bold and distinctive painting style, somewhat influenced by cubism, was perfectly suited to the exotic, sexy and glamorous tastes of 1920s Paris.  Her technique was novel, clean, precise and elegant.  As for Tadeusz, he either couldn’t or wouldn’t find work.  During this period Tamara gave birth to a daughter, Kizette.

     For her first major show in Milan, Italy, in 1925, De Lempicka painted 28 works of art in six months.  She quickly became most fashionable society portrait painter of her generation.  Her daughter, Kizette De Lempica-Foxhall, wrote in “Passion by Design,” a biography of her mother, that “She painted them all; the rich, the successful, the renowned — the best.  And with many she also slept.”  The work brought De Lempicka critical acclaim, social celebrity, and great wealth.  A portrait usually took her about three weeks, and by 1927 she could charge $50,000 francs (about $20,000 in today’s money).

     In 1925 she painted one of her most famous works, “Auto-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti)” for the cover of “Die Dame,” a German fashion magazine.   According to the magazine “Auto-Journal, “the self-portrait of Tamara De Lempicka is a real image of the independent woman who asserts herself.  Her hands are gloved, she is helmeted, and inaccessible; a cold and disturbing beauty through which pierces a formidable being — this woman is free!”  One might also add that those hooded eyes have a rapacity that seems to sum up the real woman, who couldn’t get enough cash, fame, or sex.

     De Lempicka enjoyed the bohemian life of Paris in the Roaring Twenties.  She hung out with Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and the other famous artists and poets who gathered together regularly.  She also was the subject of numerous scandals for her affairs with both men and women.  Her marriage became simply an “arrangement” and in 1927 her husband abandoned her.  They were divorced in 1928.

     Obsessed with work and social life, De Lempicka neglected more than her husband.  She rarely saw her daughter, who lived with her grandmother when she wasn’t at boarding school in France or England.  Despite her mother’s domination, occasionally Kizette showed a flash of spirit.  In 1929, when Kizette learned that her mother would not be coming back from America for Christmas, she took De Lempicka’s enormous collection of designer hats out of their closet and burned them, one by one, with great relish.

     Strangely, although De Lempicka neglected Kizette, she painted pictures of her repeatedly, leaving a striking series of portraits that chronicled her daughter’s growing up:  “Kizette in Pink,” “Kizette on the Balcony,” “Kizette Sleeping,” “Portrait of Baroness Kizette,” etc.  In many of De Lempicka’s other paintings, the women depicted bear a resemblance to Kizette.

     In 1928 her longtime patron Baron Raoul Kuffner commissioned her to paint his mistress.  De Lempicka painted the portrait — then took the mistress’ place in the Baron’s life.

De Lempicka was a wild and crazy gal

     At an early age, Polish-born Tamara de Lempicka decided she wanted to be rich and famous.  Her determination resulted in a career as a well-known portrait painter and socialite in Paris.  After going through one husband and numerous affairs, in 1928 she became the mistress of Baron Raoul Kuffner.) 

     Throughout the next decade, de Lempicka continued both her heavy workload and wild social life.  She slept with anyone and everyone; drank gin fizzes with deposed royals, and threw huge parties where naked girls were hired to be human caviar dishes.  De Lempicka worked as hard on her publicity as she did on her art.  The Great Depression didn’t bother her; in the early 1930s she was painting the King of Spain and the Queen of Greece.  Museums began collecting her works.  Meanwhile, the Baron doled out money and asked nothing.

     In 1933 she went to Chicago, where she worked with Georgia O’Keeffe, Santiago Martinez Delgado and Willem de Kooning.  That year she also married her lover, Baron Kuffner, whose wife had died the year before.  The Baron pulled de Lempicka out of her bohemian life and secured her place in high society again, with a title to boot.  De Lempicka, who foresaw the coming of WWII well before most of her contemporaries, repaid the Baron by convincing him to sell estates in Eastern Europe and move his money to Switzerland.  Her art also began to change with the times; along with her usual cold nudes and aristocrats she painted a few common people, refugees, and even a Christian saint or two.

     De Lempicka was a colossal liar.  For years she pretended that her daughter was her sister so she could lie about her age.  Sometimes she denied that she had a child, claiming that her paintings were her children.  Her daughter Kizette was ignored, scolded, and slammed by her mother even into middle age.

     In the winter of 1939, Tamara and the Baron started an “extended vacation” in the U.S.  They settled into a mansion in Beverly Hills, California, where she became known as “the baroness with a brush” and was a favorite artist of many Hollywood stars.  Like others of the time, she did war relief work.  In 1941, using her many connections, she managed to get Kizette out of Nazi-occupied Paris. 

      In 1943 the couple relocated to New York City, traveling to Europe frequently so the Baron could attend to Hungarian refugee work.  Although de Lempicka continued to live in style and socialized continuously, her popularity as a society painter diminished.  Her range of subject matter expanded to include still lifes and abstracts, and she eventually adopted a new style, using palette knives instead of brushes.  Unfortunately, her new work was not well-received in a 1962 exhibit.  De Lempicka decided never to show her work again, and retired from being an active professional artist.  However, she never stopped painting.  She stored her canvases, new and old, in a warehouse and an attic.

     Baron Kuffner died in 1962, and de Lempicka sold most of her possessions and made three trips around the world by ship.  Eventually she moved to Houston, Texas, to live with Kizette and her family.  Kizette had married Harold Foxhall, chief geologist for the Dow Chemical company, and they had two daughters.

     In 1966 the Musee des Arts Decoratifs held a commemorative exhibition in Paris which rekindled interest in Art Deco.  The exhibit inspired a young man named Alain Blondel to launch a major retrospective of Tamara de Lempicka’s work in Luxembourg.  There was to have been another exhibit in New York City, but de Lempicka made too many demands on how the show was to be presented, and the gallery curator walked away.  But gradually, as Art Deco and figurative painting returned to favor, she was rediscovered by the art world.  

     De Lempicka’s later years were unpleasant.  The longsuffering Kizette served as her business manager and social secretary, and suffered under her mother’s petulant and dominating attitude.  De Lempicka constantly complained that artists’ materials were inferior to those available in the “old days,” and said that people in the 1970s didn’t have enough “breeding” to properly appreciate her art. 

     In 1978 de Lempicka moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she surrounded herself with young people to avoid thinking about growing old.  She mourned her lost beauty, and was as cantankerous as ever right to the end.  In late 1979, Kizette’s husband died of cancer and Kizette moved to Mexico to care for her mother until de Lempicka died in her sleep on March 18, 1980.  As she had requested, her ashes were scattered on top of the volcano Popocatepetl.

     At the time of de Lempicka’s death, the wheel of fashion had turned a full circle.  Before she died, a new generation enthusiastically discovered her art.  Today, her early Art Deco paintings are again being exhibited and purchased.  Books have been written about her, and two stage plays have been based on de Lempicka’s life.  Singer-songwriter Madonna is a huge fan and collector of de Lempicka’s work, and has featured de Lempicka’s artwork in some of her music videos and on the sets of movies.  Jack Nicholson and Barbra Striesand are among other famous collectors. 

     De Lempicka’s beautifully composed and controlled paintings, still popular today; show no reflection of her wild and unruly life.

Published by on August 2011. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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