In February of 2020, Tamara de Lempicka’s Portrait de Marjorie Ferry (1932) sold for $21.1 million at Christie’s Auction House -- the second highest price ever paid for a female modern painter. Tamara de Lempicka unlocked the most private enclaves of high society life. Her art was unique; she left the world a magnificent gift, by creating her own new style of painting. Her paintings leave us a view of a life that was lived at the center of a bygone Jazz era of international sophistication, elegance, and style. She wasn’t just a brilliant painter, she had an entrepreneurial sense of her own worth and was in charge of her own career. Through her paintings and her lifestyle, she connected with and disarmed the world’s elite with her vision, sex appeal, style, and charm. According to Wolfgang Joop, German designer and collector, “Tamara de Lempicka was the first Pop artist.” Such is the legacy of Tamara de Lempicka paintings.
The feature documentary Tamara focuses on Tamara de Lempicka’s life and work. On May 16, 1898, in Warsaw, Poland, Tamara Gorska was born into a wealthy aristocratic family. A talented painter at a young age, Tamara fell in love with, and married, Taduesz Lempicki in 1916. That same year, their only child, a girl, Kizette, was born. In 1917, the Russian Revolution overturned their lives when one evening in December, while Tamara and her husband were making love, the Cheka secret police barged in and arrested Tadeusz. After searching for him in prisons for weeks, she secured his release with the help of the Swedish consul, to whom she had to provide favors in exchange. Eventually Taduesz was released and the couple fled to Paris, settling into their new lives as immigrants.
In Paris, Tamara's husband Tadeusz struggled to recover from his time in prison, and their finances were strained. This is the time the family later referred to as the “hunger years.” Adrienne, Tamara’s sister, an architect at the time in Paris, reminded her how talented she was and suggested she paint to support her family. Shortly thereafter, Tamara studied under several master painters including André Llhote, who had a significant impact on her work. Her teachers, and later the curator Alain Blondel, were drawn to her meticulous draftsmanship. She developed her own glossy and flawless painting style that appealed to her contemporaries. Her first solo gallery show in Italy launched her career, as she met many rich and powerful nobles with whom she would later commission portraits and/or have romantic affairs. In 1925, Tamara solidified her place in the canon at the first Art Deco exhibition in Paris. Determined to put the “hunger years” behind her, she used the proceeds of every painting she sold to purchase a diamond bracelet: an asset that could be easily transported and liquidated to care for her family, should the need arise. Tamara was a regular at the salons of Left Bank lesbian Natalie Barney, and was included in exhibitions of women painters.
In 1927, de Lempicka won her first award for her portrait of her daughter Kizette. Girl on the Balcony took first prize at the Exposition Internationale des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux, catapulting Tamara de Lempicka to fame and cementing her critical acclaim. She went on to paint portraits of her acquaintances -- aristocrats and members of high society such as Grand Duke Gabriel Constantinovich, Dr. Boucard, and Duchess de La Salle. At the same time, Tamara was a product of her time and her upbringing: her 20s were full of love, sex, adventure, and parties -- which solidified her place in the Paris art world of the 1920s. One of Tamara’s frequent models was her daughter, Kizette. Another key model was Ira Ponte, a neighbor in Paris and a long-term lover and muse. Later, Tamara hired the model Rafaela, after noticing her in the Bois du Boulogne. They became lovers, and she painted Rafaela many times, immortalizing her as one of Tamara’s most iconic models in La Belle Rafaela (1927). Jack Nicholson later purchased La Belle Rafaela. Tamara’s relationship with Rafaela is the subject of the Broadway musical Lempicka, set to premiere in 2022.
Tamara’s well- known string of liaisons with both men and women, as well as her nightclub lifestyle, led to the collapse of her marriage, plunging her into a depression. Tadeusz returned to Poland, and married a Polish woman. Tamara tried to win him back, but with no success. After the divorce, Tamara painted nonstop and continued to party, travel, and have affairs with her models and others. She left her portrait of Tadeusz, Painting Of A Man, unfinished. The left hand, where a wedding ring should be, would never be painted. The portrait belongs to the collection of the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris’s premier modern art museum.
In 1929, while on a visit to Monte Carlo, she was spotted by the director of Die Damme, a German fashion magazine, who admired her style and commissioned her to paint an image for the cover. Tamara proceeded to paint a self-portrait in a green Bugatti sports car. The painting became an icon of the emancipated woman. She was independent, she was divorced, and now she was driving a chic car. The New York Times referred to Tamara as the “Steely-eyed goddess of the automobile age.”
History kept Tamara on the run, first as a member of the Polish aristocracy fleeing Bolshevism in 1917, then as a Parisian and the wife of a Jew fleeing fascism in 1939 (she had married the Hungarian Baron Raoul Kuffner in 1934). Through it all, she was single-minded in her work as a painter, and through her diligent self-promotion was able to make a comfortable living from her art work. She was competitive and driven, at times denying the existence of her own daughter to solidify her identity as an artist first and foremost. Her marriages were unconventional and flagrantly open, though passionate and grounding. As she has said, “I live life in the margins of society and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe.”
The Paris art world had a precedent for female painters: Tamara herself was part of no fewer than three “Women Painters” gallery shows in the years before she moved to New York. Expecting to find the same level of acceptance there that she had in Paris, she was discouraged to find a dismissal of her work and of female painters in general. Outside of a few portrait commissions, she was not greeted with open arms.
Tamara was commissioned to paint a life-sized portrait of the fiancée of American Rufus Bush, whose family owns the Bush Terminal in New York. She became well known thanks to an article by Vanity Fair in 1927. Tamara was commissioned to paint for Baron Raoul Kuffner who was a wealthy, well connected art collector whom she had previously met at the Count CastelBarco show in Milan. She painted his mistress and called the work Portrait of Nana De Herrera (1929). Kuffner and de Lempicka ended up having an affair. After his wife died, Kuffner married de Lempicka in 1934 with an understanding of a new kind of ‘open’ relationship. As she continued to paint, the two traveled to the United States, Cuba, and back and forth to Europe.
During this time, Tamara suffered from depression and insomnia and tried to overcome it by rehabilitating in the clinics of Salsomaggiore and Zurich. Tamara’s paintings underwent a change in theme during this time as she began focusing her work on religious imagery. It has been suggested that her “St. Anthony” is a portrait of her Jewish psychiatrist in Zurich.
The mid-30's brought an end to her lucrative portrait commissions due to the Wall Street crash and an anxious political climate in Europe. She observed Hitler Youth marching in Berlin on one of her trips to Die Dame, the magazine for liberated women that had commissioned a self-portrait from Tamara for their cover. Tamara, whose father and husband were Jewish, feared Hitler and she convinced her husband they must move to America.
Tamara headed to Hollywood, where she believed she would be better understood. One of the most image-savvy people in modern history, Tamara had been enamored of the silver screen her entire life. She fancied herself a friend of Greta Garbo, and had an obsession with the actress. In Hollywood she reinvented herself once again, moving into the Beverly Hills mansion previously owned by the director King Vidor, hosting elaborate parties, and appearing in the press, acting as her own publicist. She devised a publicity stunt - a contest for the role of her next model. She became known as “The Baroness With The Paintbrush,” yet her art is not fully appreciated on the West coast, and she was still being overlooked for major shows. She decided to move to New York, to reinvent herself yet again.
In 1943, in her upper East Side New York apartment, Tamara had a stroke and was hospitalized, unconscious, for five days. Once back in the studio, she worked to reinvent herself, this time as a painter of still life and abstract expressionism. But her signature painting style was a poor fit for these genres and her work was not well received.
Tamara’s steam ran out emotionally and financially. In 1963, returning from one of his trips to Europe, the Baron passed away on the ship, leaving Tamara alone. She traveled the world twice before the grief hit, and she turned to her daughter Kizette. Tamara moved to Houston, where Kizette was raising a family of her own, and sought to reestablish their relationship.
After experiencing ageism and sexism in the United States and particularly in the American South, Tamara became close with Victor Contreras, a young, flamboyant and talented sculptor whom she had met in Paris years earlier. In him, she found someone who understood her true identity, made her laugh, and admired her art unconditionally.
In her final years she threw herself into her painting at her residence in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she relocated in 1978 until her death. Her work had been evolving, and she continued to develop her process and create an impressive body of work of over 500 paintings and drawings. She died in 1980 with her daughter by her side. According to her wishes, Victor and Kizette spread her ashes over the volcano Popocatepetl, in a dramatic final gesture. It evoked her fascination with Mount Vesuvius and the art and history of ancient Pompeii: how life’s sudden calamitous changes can arise, sweeping the bread from the mouths of children in an instant, and all that is left to history is the art that remains.
Americans have slowly fallen in love with Tamara de Lempicka, and today her work is collected and revered by many. Madonna is her foremost collector, and her paintings were featured in the music videos for the hit songs Vogue, Open Your Heart, and Express Yourself. The critically acclaimed musical, Lempicka is debuting in 2022 at the La Jolla Playhouse. Other collectors include Barbra Streisand, Tim Rice, Jack Nicholson, designer Wolfgang Joop, and Donna Karan. As Streisand told the New York Times in 1994 when she sold Adam et Eve (1932), “We screamed when the Lempicka price went over $1 million…. I paid only $135,000 for it 10 years ago.” New York Times reported that it eventually sold for $2 million.
Tamara de Lempicka’s art was unique; she left the world a magnificent gift, took art history by storm, and reinvented painting with her trademark style of precision brushwork, brilliant draftsmanship, and surprising color. Her paintings leave us a view of a life at the center of a bygone Jazz era of international sophistication, elegance, and style. She wasn’t just a painter; she was a brilliant artist, connecting with and disarming the world’s elite with her vision, sex appeal, style, and charm. Such is the legacy of Tamara de Lempicka.