The legendary Art Deco portraitist Tamara de Lempicka left a lasting legacy on the world of art, despite her short-lived fame. Her dramatic works existed on the borders between the astonishing and the kitschy. Her painting style explored modern sexuality, the construction of social status, and the self-presentation of the most influential people of the European 1920s. Take a look at 8 remarkable works made by the Polish artist.
1. Irene and Her Sister by Tamara de Lempicka
Tamara de Lempicka moved to France from Russia, escaping the turmoil of the 1917 Revolution. She started to create art not only out of a simple inclination but out of the need to support her family after immigration. Inspired by other artists of her time, she wanted to create a new artistic style. Her initial goal was to ‘humanize’ Cubism. With Europe still struggling to put itself back in order—although these mundane preoccupations barely affected the bohemian lifestyles of Lempicka and her friends—the aggressive Cubist compositions felt outdated and inappropriate.
Lempicka was also inspired by Neoclassicism, particularly the works of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. In her works, the silhouettes of Ingres’ nudes went through the prism of modern technology and imagery, becoming heavier and more physical. Lempicka’s Neoclassicism was a perverse one, instead of celebrating the best of mankind, it celebrated its vices like vanity, greed, excessive consumption, and lust. Unlike many of her colleagues, she was not enamored by the Impressionists at all. She studied their works, of course, but thought their works were lacking technique and pure color.
2. Portrait of Ira P.
Tamara de Lempicka’s works not only embraced the emerging aesthetics of Art Deco but, in many ways, helped shape it. While Art Nouveau celebrated artificiality in the form of recreating and surpassing natural objects, Art Deco went further, focusing on sleek textures of metal, sharp angles, and mechanical movement. Tamara de Lempicka extended this approach to her depiction of bodies, evident in her portraits of her long-time friend and lover, Ira Perrot. While the figure evokes associations with the works of Ingres and Botticelli, its dynamism lacks lightness.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
The bodies in Lempicka’s works are physically present, tangible, and physical, yet they still remind the viewer of some strange mechanisms that look similar to the man-machine figures constructed by Umberto Boccioni and the Futurists. When Lempicka painted herself driving a car, she represented her automobile as an extension of her body, loud, attention-grabbing, and seductive.
3. Self-Portrait (Tamara in Green Bugatti)
The most famous artwork by Tamara de Lempicka is her self-portrait. It came as a result of a spontaneous meeting with the director of the German fashion magazine Die Dame. The director saw Tamara exiting her yellow Renault, wearing a matching dress and a hat and immediately commissioned a painting from her. One painting turned into a series of works that made their way to the magazine’s covers. Contrary to the title, Tamara never owned a green Bugatti because she could not afford it at the time. In her paintings, Lempicka constructed her image as a wealthy and carefree socialite, even at times when it was far from the truth.
The magazine actually saved Lempicka from a prison sentence. In the mid-1930s, she visited Germany. However, she had no idea that, under Hitler’s command, foreigners needed a permit to enter the country. The officer who arrested the artist recognized her because his wife was an obsessive collector of Lempicka’s magazine covers. She left the country with a fine and an entry ban. Soon after, she left Europe.
4. Kizette in Pink
Artistic fame came at a certain cost. The artist’s egocentrism and obsession with appearance and status made her an abusive and cruel mother. Tamara de Lempicka’s daughter Kizette remembered how she used to play the role of a pretty accessory during her mother’s trips to Monte Carlo. The innocence of her little daughter created a perfect contrast with the dark seductiveness of Tamara. Kizette remembered how her mother used her to strike up conversations with men and get invited for dinners, and how she used to eat all of the fruit and candy that was given to her child. Still, one could not say that she did not love her daughter. Kizette mentioned summer vacations which they spent together. Her love language was painting. Tamara de Lempicka painted her daughter a lot yet never acknowledged their relationship during exhibitions.
5. Portrait of a Man, Unfinished
Kizette was the one who suffered most because of Tamara and Tadeusz’s divorce, but not because she missed one of her parents. She had witnessed her parents’ fights for years, however after learning about Tadeusz’s affair, Tamara became insufferable and released her anger on her daughter. The issue was not in the affair itself—after all, Tamara had plenty of them, too—but in the fact that for once in her life, Tamara was unable to control something.
The mutual anger and resentment of ex-partners poured out on canvas in the form of a painting titled Portrait of a Man, Unfinished. Disappointment and quiet rage on Tadeusz’s face left no illusions that the marriage still had a chance of surviving. The unfinished part was deliberate. Usually careful in her details, Tamara de Lempicka left one corner of the painting blank. It was the space where Tadeusz’s left hand rested, where he previously wore his wedding ring.
6. Portrait of Nana de Herrera
Although Tamara de Lempicka’s figures were often nude and highly sexualized, they nonetheless reflected her attitude of being in constant control. Her painted bodies emit desire and sex appeal, yet they are not presenting themselves as commodities on display. Her women were aware of their attractiveness and took charge of it.
For Lempicka, finding a new model was like falling in love. She often approached strangers, especially women, and invited them to her studio without even knowing their names. Sometimes, however, she needed to rearrange things in order to make her models truly appealing. When she was making a portrait of the actress and dancer Nana de Herrera, commissioned by her partner, she had to undress the actress and drape her in lace. According to the artist, Herrera was dressed horribly, with unflattering colors and forms that would not create a decent composition. She also asked Herrera to dance for her until she made the right facial expression.
7. Portrait of Suzy Solidor
One of the most famous portraits made by Tamara de Lempicka was her painting of Suzy Solidor, the owner of an infamous lesbian nightclub La Vie Parisienne. Dubbed the most painted woman in the world, Solidor owned more than thirty portraits of her. These works were painted by the most famous artists of her time, including Pablo Picasso, Marie Laurencin, Kees van Dongen, and Georges Braque.
Lempicka’s desires and attractions often guided her choice of painting subjects. Lempicka’s first husband complained that she slept with everyone she ever painted regardless of their gender. Her unapologetic sexuality was her inspiration and her way of exploring the world around her. Her works were a twist on traditional images of nude odalisques painted by male artists. However, de Lempicka’s women were painted through the eye of a queer woman artist, thus appealing not solely to the male gaze but to the female one as well. In her world, she formulated the image of the new feminine ideal of the time: a woman who was independent (both financially and sexually), strong-witted, and aware of the power of her mind and her looks. For once, the beauty standard set for women was established from a female perspective, and not according solely to male desires.
8. Mother Superior by Tamara de Lempicka
The moment of Tamara de Lempicka’s artistic glory was over after Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany. Although not many of her contemporaries could envision what would happen next, Lempicka’s painful experience during the Russian Revolution made her extremely sensitive to the political turmoil around her. Despite her wealth, influence, and power she could not get rid of the feeling that something was wrong. By the late 1930s, she convinced her husband to sell their European property and go to the US, taking her daughter Kizette with them. One of the last paintings created in Europe was the work showing Mother Superior, an unusual subject for Lempicka.
Several months before their departure overseas, anxious and distressed Tamara de Lempicka visited a small Catholic convent in Italy. There she met the head of the convent, Mother Superior, an old lady with a wrinkled face. The subject was atypical for Lempicka. For once, she was not painting a portrait of a young, rich, astonishing society woman but a lady who left behind the pleasures of the material world in order to focus on spiritual matters. The image of Mother Superior crying expressed Lempicka’s fears and anxieties over what was happening in the world.