Tamara de Lempicka
Biography of Russian/Polish Art Deco Painter.

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Tamara de Lempicka (c.1895-1980)


Early Career
Rise to Fame
Settles in America
Paintings by Lempicka

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The Polish-Russian portrait painter Tamara de Lempicka - active in Paris and America - was responsible for some of the greatest 20th century paintings of the figurative genre. She is undoubtedly the most recognisable painter of the Art Deco style, and today reproductions of her paintings remain very popular sellers in poster art. Apart from portrait paintings she also painted a number of female nudes as well as several still-lifes of Calla lilies. Lempicka studied in Paris under Symbolist painter and teacher Maurice Denis (1870-1943) who was a key figure in the Nabis art group; as well as Andre Lhote (1885–1962) who was a proponent of Cubism. She quickly established a reputation as a portraitist to the rich and glamorous set of Paris. Her style owes something to the 'tubism' of Fernand Leger (1881-1955), a variant of Cubist painting which emphasizes cylindrical shapes, yet it retains a distinctive streamlined and modern elegance. Better than any other painter, Lempicka embodied the Art Deco design style. She received critical acclaim and became a celebrity socialite in Paris, famed for her Greta Garbo type beauty. In 1939 she and her second husband moved to America and repeated her success in Hollywood and New York. However by the 1950s, with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, her work began to go out of fashion and for the next 20 years she painted in relative obscurity. In the 1970s there was renewed interest in her portrait art after a retrospective of her paintings at the Palais du Luxembourg, and critics began to rank her among the key early 20th century portrait artists as well as an important representative of modern art of the 1920s. Many of Lempicka's paintings are well-know today, including Unfinished Portrait of Tadeusz de Lempicka (1928, Pompidou Centre, Paris) and Auto-Portrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti) (1925, private collection).


Early Career

According to Lempicka herself, she was born Tamara Maria Gorska, in 1898, to prosperous parents in Warsaw. However according to other evidence she may in fact have been born in Moscow a few years earlier. At the age of 16 she fell in love with a handsome but poor Polish lawyer, Tadeusz de Lempicka, whom she married in a glamorous wedding in St Petersburg. Not long afterwards, he was arrested by officials from the new Bolshevik government, and was freed only after Tamara charmed his captors into releasing him. The couple then fled to Paris, where she studied art under Denis and Lhote and quickly established a reputation as a painter of the rich and famous, taking commissions from writers, entertainers and exiled nobility. She rejected the Impressionist painters whom she considered were unable to draw properly and painted with 'dirty' colours. In contrast, her style, she decided, would be clean, precise and elegant.

Note: Art Deco was the fashionable style in both fine art and decorative art of the 1920s and 1930s. Marked by its emphasis on sleek geometrical forms, its depiction of the urban landscape and the new leisure activities and social pursuits of the Roaring 20s, it injected mundane mechanical objects with real character by making them look smooth and cool. Lempicka's portraits oozed power and sensuality, her female subjects being clad in sensual fabrics in modern urban settings.

Rise to Fame

Lempicka's first major exhibition was held in Milan in 1925 sponsored by Count Emmanuele Castelbarco, for which she painted 28 paintings over the course of a mere 6 months. Through her growing network of up-market contacts she was soon exhibiting in some of the most exclusive salons in Europe. In 1925 she painted her now iconic self portrait Auto-Portrait for the cover of a German fashion magazine. In 1927 she won first prize at the Exposition Internationale de Beaux Arts in Paris, for her portrait of her daughter: Kizette on the Balcony (Pompidou Center, Paris). During the 1920s Lempicka lived a bohemian life in the French capital, enjoying the pleasures of the Roaring 20s and mixing with several members of the Ecole de Paris. She became notorious for her parties and insatiable physical appetite (with both men and women). She painted portraits of artists, entertainers, industrialists, scientists as well as Eastern Europe's emigre nobility. Her husband eventually tired of the life and divorced her in 1928. She rarely saw her only child, Kizette who was left in the care of her grandmother. As neglected as Kizette was, she became immortalised in her mother’s paintings (Kizette in Pink, 1926; Kizette Sleeping, 1934; and Baroness Kizette, 1954).

Settles in America

Through the 1930s Lempicka continued her successful career and social activities, moving back and forth between America and Europe. Although America was suffering from the Great Depression it had little impact on Lempicka. She received commissions from Queen Elizabeth of Greece and painted King Alfonso of Spain. Museums began to buy her works and in 1933 she spent time in Chicago working with artists like Willem de Kooning (1904-77), Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) and Columbian painter/sculptor Santiago Martinez Delgado (1906–1954). Her financial and social position was secured in 1933 when she married her second husband, Baron Kuffner. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the couple settled permanently in the United States. Esconced in Beverly Hills, Lempicka became known as the 'Baroness with a Brush', and painted many of Hollywood's stars.


After the War, society's taste began to change, and demand for Lempicka's decadent idiom began to decline. Abstract Expressionism was the coming style. Lempicka expanded her range to include still-life painting and even experimented with several abstract paintings. However, her new looser style - created with a palette knife - was not well received and after 1962 she refused to exhibit in public. Somewhat forgotten, she continued to paint in the 1960s and stored her completed canvases in an attic. She became notoriously cantankerous, complaining that modern artist materials were inferior to those from earlier in the century, and that people were less glamorous and did not inspire her to paint. Between 1963 and 1978 she lived in Houston, Texas, next to her daughter Kizette who became her social and business manager. Lempicka spent the last two years of her life in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

As the wheel turned yet again, interest began to revive in her paintings in the 1970s, most notably after the 1972 retrospective exhibition 'Tamara de Lempicka from 1925-1935' at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris. By 1990, ten years after her death, Lempicka's early Art Deco paintings made her something of a style icon, and one of the most recognizable of modern artists. Her works began to fetch enormous prices at art auctions and appeared in adverts and posters as a symbol of the high life.



Paintings by Tamara de Lempicka

Although many of her paintings are held by private collectors, her works are also in some of the best art museums in the world. Her canvases include:

- The Two Friends (1923) Petit Palace, Geneva.
- Auto-Portrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti) (1925) Private Collection.
- Kizette on Balcony (1927) Musee National d'Art Moderne, Pompidou Centre.
- Young Girl in Green (1927) Musee National d'Art Moderne, Pompidou Centre.
- In the Middle of Summer (1928) Private Collection.
- Unfinished Portrait of Tadeusz de Lempicka (1928) Pompidou Centre, Paris.
- Spring (1929) Private Collection.
- Portrait of Doctor Boucard (1929) Private Collection.
- The Telephone II (1930) Private Collection.
- Portrait of Suzy Solidor (1933) Chateau-Musee, Cagnes-sur-Mer.
- Calla Lilies (1941) Private Collection.

• For biographies of other Art Deco artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more details of painting from the 1920s and 1930s, see: Homepage.

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