Tamara de Lempicka: Who was the 'Baroness with a Brush' who captured the high style of the Roaring Twenties?

Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), the Polish artist whose bold Art Deco style so perfectly captured the spirit of the Jazz Age, was born 120 years ago today.

She is the subject of Google’s latest Doodle, which foregrounds the high-fashion flappers, shiny new automobiles and orchids that became instantly recognisable motifs in her own work.

“I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe,” she said of herself.

Born Maria Gorksa in Warsaw, the future “Baroness of the Brush” was the daughter of Russian Jewish attorney Boris Gurwik-Gorski and socialite Malvina Decler.

She painted her first portrait in pastels aged just 10, a younger sister posing for her, before attending boarding school in Laussane, Switzerland, an experience she detested.

Leaving to tour Italy with her grandmother, it was here that Tamara first developed a fascination with Renaissance painting. 

Completing her formal education, however reluctantly, she swiftly met and fell for Polish lawyer Tadeusz Lempicki, the pair marrying in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1916.

A year later Lempicki was arrested by the Cheka following the Russian Revolution and the couple were forced to leave for Copenhagen, ultimately taking refuge in Paris.

Selling family jewelry to make ends meet, Lempicka gave birth to a daughter, Kizette, then turned to painting professionally to make ends meet, practising with portraits of the infant and a neighbour.

After studying under Maurice Denis and Andre Lhote at the Academie de la Grand Chaumiere, her breakthrough came when her work was exhibited at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, where she was spotted by American fashion journalists from Harper’s Bazaar.

Exhibiting in Milan, Italy, she met the Italian poet and soldier Gabriele d’Annunzio, whose portrait she hoped to paint, though he was rather more intent on seducing her than sitting still.

In 1928, as her reputation continued to grow, she divorced Tadeusz and became the mistress of Baron Raoul Kuffner, an art collector who had commissioned her to paint his then-girlfriend Nana de Herrera, a Spanish dancer. Tamara undertook the project with malice and produced an unflattering result, taking Herrera’s place and eventually marrying Baron Kuffner in Zurich in 1934.

Her self-portrait, Tamara in a Green Bugatti, was instantly iconic when it appeared on the cover of German fashion magazine Die Dame in 1929.

Her first American show at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh was a hit but the proceeds were immediately wiped out by the Wall Street Crash. By now her international reputation was assured anyway and she spent the 1930s painting such celebrities as King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of Greece, her idiosyncratic post-Cubist/neoclassical style much in demand.

Settling permanently in Los Angeles with the outbreak of the Second World War having sold off Baron Kuffner’s properties in Hungary for fear of the Nazis, Tamara and her husband remained popular socialites but changing times saw her work fall out of fashion, overtaken by abstract expressionism.

Baron Kuffner died of a heart attack aboard an ocean liner in 1961 and De Lempicka retired to Houston, Texas, with Kizette and her husband, a geologist.

Tamara de Lempicka lived out her final years in Cuernavaca, Mexico, the final destination in an extraordinarily well-travelled life, passing away in her sleep on 18 March 1980. She remains forever associated with the glamour and opulence of the Roaring Twenties, her work conveying the excitement of the age on canvas as distinctively as F Scott Fitzgerald had in prose.

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