Known as the "Baroness with a brush" or the "painting Baroness," Tamara de Lempicka became one of the main representatives of the Art Deco movement by embracing it and revolutionizing its fascist and misogynist tendencies.
Art Deco is one of the most popular artistic movements for a very good reason. For the first time, at least in modern history, there was a current that focused on more affordable pieces with a showy and alluring aesthetic. Since its origins, this new form of decorative art was highly accepted by all classes to the point that it could be appreciated basically everywhere: buildings, cinemas, fashion, sculptures, and paintings, for instance. Art Deco dominated the art industry and became an icon of pop culture mainly in its peak during the twenties and thirties. But as it tends to happen with anything that becomes very popular, it’s not that well accepted by fervent and devout art lovers. That and because it became the preferred visual current for Fascism. The Nazis, for instance, adopted it in their particular aesthetic mainly because it encompassed a perfect mixture of the past and modernity with an aim of advertising, something they were very keen to show off.
Double 47 (1924)
Group of Four Nudes (1925)
With this cultural, artistic, and historical background, the famous Tamara de Lempicka blossomed and became one of the most important representatives of Art Deco. Her paintings, mainly portraits, were so popular that she even toured throughout Europe displaying her work. Not only that, she was so popular, that some of the most powerful people back then used to queue to commision a painting from her. In his article for The Guardian, culture historian Fiona MacCarthy calls her an artist of the Fascist super world not precisely because she shared these views (she didn’t actually), but for two very important reasons. On the one hand, her privileged spot in the Art Deco elite. On the other hand, her paintings of Europe’s elite represent that decadence disguised in gold and sparkle through which fascism rose. In more ways than one, Tamara de Lempicka’s life and art is so interesting, just as her paintings are alluring in terms of subjects, techniques, and vibrant colors.
Adam and Eve (1932)
Portrait of the Marquis d'Afflitto (1925)
She modified and distorted her biography as many times as she saw fit to create her persona, but officially, she was born in 1898 in Warsaw to a very wealthy family. Her father was a Jewish lawyer working for a successful French company, and her mother was part of the Polish social elite. From a very early age, she proved to have a rebellious soul that would drive her all her life. When her parents got divorced, her mother remarried and planned on sending her to boarding school. Instead, she decided to go stay with an aunt of hers in St. Petersburg. In 1915, she met a young Polish lawyer called Tadeusz Lempicki, the son of a noble family. Soon they got married, joining their wealth and becoming one of the richest couples in Russia. But just as they were starting to enjoying their life, the Russian Revolution happened and their situation was going to change forever.
Portrait of S.A.I. Grand Duke Gavriil Konstantinovic (1927)
Reclining Nude I (1925)
Tadeusz was arrested by the Bolsheviks, but Tamara knew right people who could set him free. They fled and eventually settled in Paris. Poor, and with Tadeusz struggling to land a good job, Tamara decided to pursue a career in the arts, seeing the prominence the discipline had in Paris. She enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, an art school that didn't care that much about academic art rules and had very low fees. There, she got to learn from very talented people and developed a unique style that would boost her career. Not that long after, she ventured into art, she was already selling quite enough paintings for her, her husband, and her daughter, who had been born in Paris.
Portrait of a Man or Mr. Tadeusz de Lempicki (1928)
In 1925, Paris hosted the first International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art, which ended up inspiring the Art Deco movement. Here, Tamara was able to exhibit her work at the two most important venues at the moment, but it was actually when a journalist from Harper’s Bazaar spotted her that when her fame really began. She soon started touring around, and Milan was the first place where she had a solo exhibition. She had a particular style with some elements of synthetic cubism, a more intelligible phase of the current that experimented with textures, patterns, and collages. To that she incorporated the Art Deco features that used advertising photography techniques (such as lighting or focus angles of the subjects), prioritization of lines, and even common subjects like nudes.
My Portrait (Self-Portrait in the Green Bugatti) (1929)
Portrait of Dr. Boucard (1929)
She was famous not only for her art but also for her lavish and kind of unrestrained life. She was openly bisexual and had pretty public relationships with both men and women, mainly her models and patrons. It’s said that her nudes express more emotions than her portraits mainly because they show the passion she shared with her subjects. This lifestyle and her increasing popularity put a strain in her relationship with Tadeusz, and they ended up divorcing. This didn’t really have an impact on her life and career, on the contrary, she focused more on her very complicated agenda, and used her free time to enjoy her moment.
The Green Turban (1930)
Portrait of Suzy Solidor (1933)
In 1934, she remarried a Hungarian baron, Raoul Kuffner, and she was doing commissioned paintings for some of the most powerful people in Europe, including supporters of fascism. Still, when they saw the Nazi growth in Germany and the close relationship they had with Hungary, Tamara convinced her husband to sell his estates and move out, fearing for her life (she was half Jewish and the hatred was growing dramatically). They moved to the US, where she continued hanging out with society people. She was known as the “painting baroness” or the “baroness with a brush,” but wasn’t as praised as she had been in Europe. In the US, it had become more of a curiosity, not to mention that her art had totally lost track and vision. Just as Europe had gone into the worst decline ever, the great art of Tamara de Lempicka entered a similar path.
Portrait of Marjorie Ferry (1932)
Portrait of the Duchess of La Salle (1925)
She tried to reinvent herself through the popular art currents of the time, but without success. Art Deco was forgotten and her work was no longer as popular as it had been. With the sudden death of her husband in 1961, she decided to travel the world and retire professionally. She moved with her daughter to Texas and in 1974 she moved to a small town in Mexico to spend her last years.
Girl with Gloves (1929)
Sleeping Woman (1935)
Tamara de Lempicka died peacefully and almost in oblivion in 1980. However, by the time, Art Deco was having a resurgence and her name was on top once again. Not only was she one of a kind and always lived her life as she desired, but she also saw art as the means to express herself just as she wanted. She used to say that “there are no miracles, there is only what you make,” and her art is proof of that. When Art Deco was portraying women as mere objects, she showed them as independent and liberated goddesses. That’s the legacy of Tamara de Lempicka, a woman who managed to rule the fascist world of art on her own terms.
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