Flawless, timeless glamour — The art of Tamara de Lempicka
An introduction to the artist who captured inter-war high society in an Art Deco style which oozed cool chic and elegant sensuality. ‘Among a hundred paintings,’ she claimed, ‘you could always recognise mine’
The painter Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) was nicknamed ‘the baroness with a paintbrush’. In the années folles between the two World Wars, she flitted between the Ritz Hotel in Paris and the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, socialising with — and capturing on canvas — her era’s elite.
She counted Queen Elizabeth of Greece, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and the Italian poet-prince Gabriele d’Annunzio among her sitters. As Jean Cocteau put it, Lempicka ‘loved art and high society in equal measure’.
She is renowned for an Art Deco style which oozed cool chic and elegant sensuality. Portraiture was her genre, featuring stylised subjects bedecked in seductive textures and bathed in flattering light. For some works, Lempicka used herself as model, which made sense given she wore clothes by Coco Chanel and was occasionally mistaken in public for Greta Garbo.
View top prices for Lempicka achieved at Christie’s
‘One of the great things about Lempicka is that she painted in a highly identifiable style,’ says Keith Gill, Head of the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in London. ‘You can recognise her paintings immediately.’
Few artists sum up an epoch quite as completely as Tamara de Lempicka. Hers were conspicuously luxurious pictures for conspicuously luxurious times.
On 5 February 2020, Portrait of Marjorie Ferry (1932) — a depiction of one of Paris’s cabaret singers — is being offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in London.
Tamara de Lempicka cultivated her image as an exotic aristocrat-émigré
Details about Lempicka’s early years are sketchy. What we do know is that she was born in 1898 into a family of Russo-Polish aristocrats and went to boarding school in Lausanne. In 1917 she and her husband Tadeusz were forced to flee St Petersburg and the Russian Revolution, and headed for Paris.
In the French capital she studied painting in the ateliers of Maurice Denis and André Lhote, and quickly found success. By the early 1920s her works were appearing in major Paris exhibitions, such as the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Tuileries.
Lempicka was a canny operator. She cultivated a public image for herself as flawless as the surface of her paintings: that of an exotic aristocrat-émigré, who threw lavish parties in her three-storey apartment on rue Méchain in which the furniture was monogrammed with her initials.
Lempicka’s paintings were frequently reproduced in fashion magazines
‘Technically, Tamara de Lempicka was a very fine painter,’ says Gill. ‘Her striking use of light and shadow; the way her backgrounds complement the gorgeous fabric worn by her subjects; the attention she gave to lips, hands and hair. In this way, her paintings almost have the feel of fashion photography from that time.’
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the last time Portrait of Marjorie Ferry came to auction — in 2009, when it fetched a then record price of $4.9 million — the seller was fashion designer Wolfgang Joop.
Lempicka’s paintings were frequently reproduced in fashion magazines, such as Harper’s Bazaar and Die Dame in Germany. Her canvas La Musicienne — featuring her lover Ira Perrot, in a long blue dress playing a mandolin — appeared on the cover of the latter in April 1930. In November 2018, La Musicienne broke the artist’s auction record when it fetched $9.1 million at Christie’s in New York.
She blended various art-historical influences
One of the artist’s strengths was an ability to seamlessly fuse classical and contemporary elements. Many of her figures have a voluminousness that calls to mind Ancient Greek statuary, yet they’re set against backdrops that are distinctly machine-age.
Lempicka had been impressed by her first trip to New York in the late 1920s, and a skyline of Manhattan skyscrapers featured in several of her paintings thereafter. Notable examples include La Musicienne and Les Jeunes Filles, in which the artist depicts herself and Ira in an amorous embrace. Both paintings boast another Lempicka trademark: a finish that makes them look like they’re rendered in polished, polychrome steel.
Lempicka had various art-historical influences, from Cubism and Neo-Classicism to Botticelli and Italian Mannerists such as Bronzino, not to mention contemporary cinema. What she ended up with was a blend of all these that was very much her own.
‘Among a hundred paintings, you could always recognise mine,’ she said. ‘The galleries… put me in the best rooms, always in the centre, because my painting attracted people. It was neat, it was finished.’
The most sought-after of Lempicka’s paintings tend be to her pictures of women
Lempicka painted the portraits of many suave gentlemen, the Marquis d’Afflito and Marquis Sommi among them. According to Gill, however, it’s pictures of women that most excite the market.
‘The top 10 Lempickas sold at auction have all had female subjects,’ the specialist explains. Tadeusz divorced Tamara in 1931 on grounds of serial infidelity, and many of her affairs were with women who appear in her paintings. ‘The most sought-after works tend to be those with identifiable, female sitters who played a known part in the artist’s life or social circle,’ confirms Gill. ‘Ira Perrot is one, Rafaela Fano another.’
Lempicka began her affair with the former in 1922. ‘It was a reckless, adventuresome, exhilarating time for her,’ recalled the artist’s daughter Kizette. ‘Her art and the world that went with it had become life for her.’
Fano, meanwhile, was described by the artist as ‘the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen’. Lempicka bumped into her one day in the Bois de Boulogne and immediately asked her to be her model. The pair soon became lovers.
In his 2006 monograph on the artist, Patrick Bade wrote that Lempicka’s depictions of Rafaela were ‘the most potently erotic works of her career, in which the desire… for the soft, curvaceous body of the model is palpable’. The most expensive Lempicka ever sold at auction, La Tunique Rose, is a picture of Rafaela.
She fled Europe before the war
In the mid 1930s Lempicka married Raoul Kuffner, a wealthy Hungarian baron. Both he and Tamara had Jewish ancestry, and sensing the way the political wind was blowing in Europe, they decided to leave for the United States in 1939.
Removed from the Paris avant-garde, Lempicka never recaptured the highs of earlier in her career. Without dukes or counts to paint, she struggled for suitable subject matter and ended up moving into abstraction.
‘Her peak period was undoubtedly that decade from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s,’ says Gill. ‘At the time, she turned out masterpiece after masterpiece. It’s paintings from those years that any collector should be looking for.’
Her market is booming, and she attracts high-profile collectors
Interest in Lempicka began to revive after an exhibition of her inter-war works was held at Paris’s Palais du Luxembourg in 1973. She spent the last few years of her life in Mexico, before passing away in 1980. Her final artistic gesture was asking her daughter Kizette to hire a helicopter, head up to Mount Popocateptl and scatter her ashes in its volcanic crater.
After her death, there came another wave of enthusiasm for her work. Barbara Streisand and Madonna were collectors. The latter was such a fan that she included a host of Lempicka pictures at the start of the video for her song Vogue.
The market for the artist’s work today is, in Gill’s words, ‘very strong’. More than 20 paintings have now exceeded the $1 million mark at auction, and her record price has been broken twice in the past 18 months.
Why the popularity? ‘In part, simply because we’ve seen a number of very good works coming to auction’, Gill says. ‘There’s also the nostalgia for a certain age. But another factor is that Lempicka’s works exude a glamour that’s truly timeless.’