Tamara de Lempicka

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Tamara de Lempicka
Tamara de Lempicka.jpg
Tamara de Lempicka, portrait photograph by Dora Kallmus of d'Ora Studio, Paris, 1929
Born Maria Górska
(1898-05-16)16 May 1898
Warsaw, Congress Poland, Russian Empire
Died 18 March 1980(1980-03-18) (aged 81)
Cuernavaca, Mexico
Nationality Polish
Education Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris
Known for Painting
Movement Art Deco

Tamara Łempicka (born Maria Górska; 16 May 1898 – 18 March 1980), also known as Tamara de Lempicka, was a Polish painter active in the 1920s and 1930s, who spent her working life in France and the United States. She is best-known for her polished Art-Deco portraits of aristocrats and the wealthy, and for her highly-stylized paintings of nudes.

Born in Warsaw, Lempicka moved to Saint Petersburg where she married a prominent Polish lawyer, then emigrated to Paris with her husband following the Russian Revolution. She studied painting with Maurice Denis and André Lhote.[1][2] Her style was a blend of late, refined cubism and the neoclassical style, particularly inspired by the work of Jean-Dominique Ingres.[1] She was an active participant in the artistic and social life of Paris between the Wars. In 1928 she became the mistress of wealthy art collector from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Baron Raoul Kuffner. After the death of his wife in 1933, the Baron married Lempicka in 1934, and thereafter she became known in the press as "The Baroness with a Brush."

Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, she and her husband moved to the United States and she painted celebrity portraits, as well as still-lifes and, in the 1960s, some abstract paintings. Her work was out of fashion after World War II, but made a comeback in the late 1960s, with the rediscovery of Art Deco. She moved to Mexico in 1974, where she died in 1980. At her request, her ashes were scattered over the Popocatapetl volcano.[3]


Warsaw and St. Petersburg (1898–1917)[edit]

She was born Maria Górska on May 16, 1898, in Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire.[4] Her father was Boris Gurwik-Górski, a Russian Jewish attorney for a French trading company,[4][5][6][7] and her mother was Malwina Decler, a Polish socialite who had lived most of her life abroad and who met her husband at one of the European spas.[8] At the age of ten, her mother commissioned a pastel portrait of her by a prominent local artist. She detested posing, and was dissatisfied with the finished work. She took the pastels, had her younger sister pose, and made her first portrait.[9]

In 1911 her parents sent her to a boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, but she was bored and she feigned illness to be permitted to leave the school. Instead, her grandmother took her on a tour of Italy, where she developed her interest in art. Her parents divorced in 1912, and her mother remarried. She returned to the school in Lausanne, but to protest the remarriage of her mother, she refused to spend her holidays with her family. Instead, she spent the summer with her wealthy aunt Stéfa in Saint Petersburg. There, in 1915, she met and fell in love with a prominent Polish lawyer, Tadeusz Łempicki (1888–1951). Her family offered him a large dowry, and they were married in 1916 in the chapel of the Knights of Malta in St. Petersburg.[10][9]

The Russian Revolution in November 1917 overturned their comfortable life. In December 1917, Tadeusz Łempicki was arrested in the middle of the night by the Checka, the secret police. Tamara searched the prisons for him, and with the help of the Swedish consul, to whom she offered her favors, she secured his release.[9] They traveled to Copenhagen then to London and finally to Paris, where Tamara's family had also found refuge.[11][10]

Paris (1918–1939)[edit]

In Paris, the Łempickis lived for a while from the sale of family jewels. Tadeusz proved unwilling or unable to find suitable work. Their daughter, Kizette, was born, adding to their financial needs. She decided to become a painter by the suggestion of her sister, and studied at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière with Maurice Denis, and also with André Lhote.[12] Her first paintings were still lifes and portraits of her daughter Kizette and her neighbor. She sold her first paintings through the Galerie Colette-Weil, which allowed her to exhibit at the Salon des independents, the Salon d'automne and the Salon des moins de trente ans, for promising young painters.[9]

Her breakthrough came in 1925, with the international Exposiion of Modern Decoratie and Industrial Arts which later gave its name to the style Art Deco. She exhibited her paintings in two of the major venues, the Salon des Tuileries and the Salon des femmes peintres. Her paintings were spotted by American journalists from Harper's Bazaar and other fashion magazines, and her name became known.[9] In the same year, she had her first major exposition in Italy, in Milan, organized for her by Count Emmanuele Castelbarco. For this show Lempicka painted 28 new works in six months.[3] During her Italian tour, she took a new lover, the Marquis Sommi Picenardi. She was also invited to meet the famous Italian poet and playwright, Gabriele d'Annunzio. She visited him twice at his villa on Lake Garda, seeking to paint his portrait; he in turn was set on seduction. After her unsuccessful attempts to secure the commission, she went away angry, while d'Annunzio also remained unsatisfied.[13]

In 1927 Lempicka won her first major award, the first prize at the Exposition Internationale des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux, France, for her portrait of Kizette on the Balcony. In 1929 another portrait of Kizette, at her first communion, won a bronze medal at the international exposition in Poznań, Poland.[9]

"The Musician" (1929), oil on canvas by Tamara de Lempicka

In 1928, she was divorced from Tadeusz Lempicki.[9] The same year she met Raoul Kuffner, a Baron of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and art collector. His title was not an ancient one; his family had been granted the title by the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz-Joseph I, because Kuffner's family had been the supplier of beef and beer to the imperial court.[14] He owned considerable properties in eastern Europe. He commissioned her to paint his mistress, the Spanish dancer Nana de Herrera. Lempicka finished the portrait (which was not very flattering to the de Herrera) and took the place of de Herrera as the mistress of the Baron.[15] She bought an apartment on rue Méchain in Paris, and had it decorated by the modernist architect Robert Mallet-Stevens.

In 1929, Lempicka painted one of her best-known works, Autoportrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti), for the cover of the German fashion magazine Die Dame. This showed her at the wheel of a Bugatti racing car, wearing a leather helmet and gloves and wrapped in a gray scarf, a portrait of cold beauty, independence, wealth and inaccessibility.[16] In fact she did not own a Bugatti automobile; her own car was a small yellow Renault, which was stolen one night when she and her friends were celebrating at La Rotonde in Montparnasse.[17]

She travelled to the United States for the first time in 1929 to paint a portrait of the American oilman Rufus T. Bush and to arrange a show of her work at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. The exposition was a success but the money she earned was lost when the bank she used collapsed following the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Lempicka's career reached a peak during the 1930s. She painted portraits of King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of Greece. Museums began to collect her works. In 1933 she traveled to Chicago where her pictures were shown alongside of those of Georgia O'Keeffe, Santiago Martínez Delgado and Willem de Kooning. Despite the Great Depression, she continued to receive commissions and showed her work at several Paris galleries.[9]

The wife of Baron Kuffner died in 1933. De Lempicka married him on February 3, 1934, in Zurich.[18] She was alarmed by the rise of the Nazis, and persuaded her husband to sell most of his properties in Hungary and to move his fortune and his belongings to Switzerland.[9]

The United States and Mexico (1939–1980)[edit]

In the winter of 1939, following the outbreak of World War II, Lempicka and her husband moved to the United States. They settled first in Los Angeles. The Paul Reinhard Gallery organized a show of her work, and they moved to Beverly Hills, settling into the former residence of the film director director King Vidor. Shows of her work were organized at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York, the Courvoisier Galleries in San Francisco, and the Milwaukee Institute of Art, but her shows did not have the success she hoped. Her daughter Kizette was able to escape from occupied France via Lisbon and joined them in Los Angeles in 1941. Kizette married a Texas geologist, Harold Foxhall. In 1943, Baron Kuffner and de Lempicka relocated to New York City.[9]

In the postwar years, she continued a frenetic social life, but she had fewer commissions for society portraits. Her art deco style looked anachronistic in the period of postwar modernism and abstract expressionism. She expanded her subject matter to include still lives, and in 1960 she began to paint abstract works and to use a palette knife instead of her smooth earlier brushwork. She sometimes reworked earlier pieces in her new style. The crisp and direct Amethyste (1946), became the pink and fuzzy Girl with Guitar (1963). She had a show at the Ror Volmar Gallery in Paris in May and June 1961, but it did not repeat her earlier success.[19]

Baron Kuffner died of a heart attack on November 1961 on the ocean liner Liberté en route to New York,[20] Following his death, Lempicka sold many of her possessions and made three around-the-world trips by ship. In 1963 Lempicka moved to Houston, Texas to be with Kizette and her family. She retired as a professional artist.[9] She continued to repaint her earlier works. She repainted her well-known "Autoportrait" (1929) twice between 1974 and 1979; "Autoportrait III" was sold, though she hung "Autoportrait II" in her retirement apartments, where it would remain until her death.[21] The last work she painted was the fourth copy of her painting of St. Anthony.[22]

In 1974 she decided to move to Cuernavaca, Mexico. After the death of her husband in 1979, Kizette moved to Cuernevaca to take care of de Lempicka, whose health was declining. De Lempicka died in her sleep on March 18, 1980. Following her wishes, her ashes were scattered over the volcano of Popocatepetl.[9]


A resurgence of interest in Art Deco began in the late 1960s. A retrospective of her work was held at the Luxembourg Gallery in Paris in 1973, a few years before her death, and received positive reviews.[23] After her death, her early Art Deco paintings were being shown and purchased once again. A stage play, Tamara, was inspired by her meeting with Gabriele D'Annunzio and was first staged in Toronto; it then ran in Los Angeles for eleven years (1984–1995) at the VFW Post, making it the longest running play in Los Angeles, and some 240 actors were employed over the years. The play was also subsequently produced at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York City.[24] In 2005, the actress and artist Kara Wilson performed Deco Diva, a one-woman stage play based on Lempicka's life. Her life and her relationship with one of her models is fictionalized in Ellis Avery's novel The Last Nude,[25] which won the American Library Association Stonewall Book Awards Barbara Gittings Literature Award for 2013.[26]


The Turkish Bath of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1819)

The best description of Lempicka's work was her own: "I was the first woman to make clear paintings", she later told her daughter, "and that was the origin of my success. Among a hundred canvases, mine were always recognizable. The galleries tended to show my pictures in the best rooms, because they attracted people. My work was clear and finished. I looked around me and could only see the total destruction of painting. The banality in which art had sunk gave me a feeling of disgust. I was searching for a craft that no longer existed; I worked quickly with a delicate brush. I was in search of technique, craft, simplicity and good taste. My goal: never copy. Create a new style, with luminous and brilliant colors, rediscover the elegance of my models."[1][27]

She was one of the best-known painters of the Art Deco style, a group which included Jean Dupas, Diego Rivera, Josep Maria Sert, Reginald Marsh, and Rockwell Kent, but unlike these artists, who often painted large murals with crowds of subjects, she focused almost exclusively on portraits.

Her first teacher at the Academie Ranson in Paris was Maurice Denis, who taught her according to his celebrated maxim: "Remember that a painting, before it is a war horse, a nude woman or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order." He was primarily a decorative artist, who taught her the traditional craftsmanship of painting.[28] Her other influential teacher was André Lhote, who taught her to follow a softer, more refined form of cubism that did not shock the viewer or look out of place in a luxurious living room. Her cubism was far from that of Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque; For her, Pablo Picasso "embodied the novelty of destruction".[27] Lempicka's combined this soft cubism with a neoclassical style, inspired largely by Ingres, particularly his famous Turkish Bath, with its exaggerated nudes crowding the canvas. Her painting La Belle Rafaëlla was especially influenced by Ingres. Lempicka's technique, following Ingres, was clean, precise, and elegant, but at the same time charged with sensuality and a suggestion of vice.[1] The cubist elements of her paintings were usually in the background, behind the Ingresque figures. The smooth skin textures and equally smooth, luminous fabrics of the clothes were the dominant elements of her paintings.[1]

Personal life[edit]

She placed high value on working to produce her own fortune, famously saying "There are no miracles, there is only what you make." de Lempicka took this personal success and created a hedonistic lifestyle for herself, accompanied by intense love affairs within high society.[29]

Famous for her libido, she was bisexual. Her affairs with both men and women were conducted in ways that were considered scandalous at the time. She often used formal and narrative elements in her portraits, and her nude studies produced overpowering effects of desire and seduction.[30] In the 1920s she became closely associated with lesbian and bisexual women in writing and artistic circles, such as Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West, and Colette. She also became involved with Suzy Solidor, a night club singer at the Boîte de Nuit, whose portrait she later painted.[31]

Kizette rarely saw her mother, but was immortalized in her paintings. Lempicka painted her only child repeatedly, leaving a striking portrait series: Kizette in Pink, 1926; Kizette on the Balcony, 1927; Kizette Sleeping, 1934; Portrait of Baroness Kizette, 1954–1955, etc. In other paintings, the women depicted tend to resemble Kizette. In 1927, she won first prize at the Exposition Internationale des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux for a painting of her daughter entitled Kizette on the Balcony. Four years later, she would win a bronze medal at the Exposition Internationale in Poznan, Poland, for another portrait of her daughter, Kizette's First Communion.[32]


American singer-songwriter and actress Madonna is an admirer and collector of Lempicka's work[33] and has lent paintings to events and museums. Madonna has also featured Lempicka's work in her music videos for "Open Your Heart" (1987), "Express Yourself" (1989), "Vogue" (1990) and "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" (1998). She also used paintings by Lempicka on the sets of her 1987 Who's That Girl and 1990 Blond Ambition world tours.

Other notable Lempicka collectors include actor Jack Nicholson and singer-actress Barbra Streisand.

Robert Dassanowsky's book Telegrams from the Metropole: Selected Poems 1980–1998 includes the poems "Tamara de Lempicka" and "La Donna d'Oro" dedicated to Kizette de Lempicka.


  1. ^ a b c d e Néret 2016, pp. 27-31.
  2. ^ Grosenick & Becker 2001, p. 306.
  3. ^ a b Lempicka-Foxhall 1987, p. 58.
  4. ^ a b Commire 2002.
  5. ^ Fiona MacCarthy (15 May 2004). "The good old naughty days.". theguardian.com. Retrieved 18 August 2014. 
  6. ^ Magdalena Wróblewska. "Tamara de Lempicka.". culture.pl. Retrieved 18 August 2014. 
  7. ^ Glyn Vincent (24 October 1999). "Glitter Art.". nytimes.com. Retrieved 18 August 2014. 
  8. ^ Claridge & Lempicka 1999, pp. 15, 377.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Néret 2016, p. 93.
  10. ^ a b Claridge & Lempicka 1999, pp. 39-40, 53.
  11. ^ Henderson, Andrea. ""de Lempicka, Tamara."". Gale Virtual Reference Library. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved 25 October 2016. 
  12. ^ "Tamara de Lempicka". Art History 101: Art Deco Artists. 19 February 2016. Retrieved 2016-06-28. 
  13. ^ Noreen 2016, p. 93.
  14. ^ Néret 2016, p. 75.
  15. ^ Henderson, Andrea. "de Lempicka, Tamara". Gale Virtual Reference Library. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved 27 October 2016. 
  16. ^ Lempicka-Foxhall 1987, p. 77.
  17. ^ Néret 2016, p. 7.
  18. ^ Adler, 4/2001, 31
  19. ^ Claridge & Lempicka 1999, p. 281.
  20. ^ Adler, 4/2001, 31.
  21. ^ López, Tomas (2 August 2009). "Tamara de Lempicka y Víctor Contreras: una amistad interminable" [Tamara de Lempicka and Víctor Contreras: an endless friendship]. oem.com.mx (in sp). Retrieved 2016-08-23. 
  22. ^ http://www.delempicka.org/artwork/1972-1980.html
  23. ^ Néret 2016, p. 94.
  24. ^ Review of Tamara in New York Times dated Dec. 3, 1987
  25. ^ "'The Last Nude': A Passionate Portrait Of An Artist And Her Muse". NPR.org. 31 December 2011. Retrieved 2016-08-23. 
  26. ^ "2013 Stonewall book awards announced". Archived from the original on 16 May 2013. Retrieved 6 February 2013. 
  27. ^ a b Lempicka-Foxhall 1987, p. 52.
  28. ^ Néret 2016, p. 21.
  29. ^ Brady, Helen. "The Raucous Life Of Tamara de Lempicka: An Art Deco Icon". The Culture Trip. The Culture Trip. Retrieved 26 October 2016. 
  30. ^ "Famous GLTB". Archived from the original on 12 March 2007. Retrieved 17 March 2006. .
  31. ^ "Lempicka, Tamara de (1898?-1980)". Archived from the original on 1 November 2014. Retrieved 3 November 2007. .
  32. ^ "de Lempicka, Tamara." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Ed. Andrea Henderson. 2nd ed. Vol. 24. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 106-109. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
  33. ^ Cross 2007, p. 47.


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