Tamara de Lempicka is regarded as perhaps the quintessential artist of the Art Deco period that developed between 1910 and 1940, reaching its apex from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s. Moreover, she is regarded as the movement’s only important Art Deco portraitist. Yet despite her fame in the 1920s and 1930s–a fame predicated not only on her art but on the glamorous social life that she led with the wealthy European glitterati who sat for her–de Lempicka became a forgotten figure in the 1950s and 1960s with the advent of Abstract Expressionism. Only in her final years, after a 1972 retrospective of her work at the Galerie du Luxembourg in Paris confirmed her place at the forefront of the Art Deco movement, did she receive a modicum of the critical attention that she enjoyed during her most productive years.
Born in Warsaw at the end of the nineteenth century, she married Tadeusz Lempicki, a Russian lawyer from a wealthy family. The newlyweds fled to Paris in 1918 during the Russian Revolution, and their relationship deteriorated rapidly. It was at this time that de Lempicka turned to painting, studying and practicing with an entirely characteristic single-mindedness. Influential instructors included Symbolist artist Maurice Denis and painter Andre Lhote, pioneer of what came to be known as Synthetic Cubism. By 1923 de Lempicka’s paintings were beginning to appear in the most important Paris salons (the Salon des Indépendants, the Salon d’Automne, etc.), and the fundamental characteristics of her art were in place. She utilized tight compositions, bold and violent colors, and enamel-like paints to create loosely Cubist portraits, often shot through with a sort of cold eroticism. In subsequent years she often chose to juxtapose her subjects with distant architecture, primarily skyscrapers.
Solidly ensconced in Paris’s exotic and glamorous social scene, de Lempicka chose fellow members of the city’s elite for many of her works, creating portraits in which sophistication, glamour, and arrogance fought for primacy. In addition, de Lempicka used her daughter Kizette as the subject for a number of her works, and she was not averse to approaching strangers on the street who embodied the look that she sought for a particular piece. “What she painted had a smooth polish, an icy perfection that detached her subjects from reality, that made them archetypal,” wrote her daughter and Charles Phillips in Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka.
By the early 1930s de Lempicka’s work had made her a much sought-after portrait painter, and although she maintained an extravagant lifestyle, she also produced a large number of works over the next several years, producing portraits of personalities as diverse as King Alfonso of Spain and Suzy Solidor, a lesbian Parisian nightclub owner. In 1933 de Lempicka, who had long since separated from her first husband, married Baron Raoul Kuffner. Six years later, they moved to Hollywood as the first rumblings of World War II rolled across Europe.
The move to America came at the same time that regard for de Lempicka’s art began to wane. During the ensuing decade, the Art Deco portraiture that had taken Europe by storm in the inter-war period came to seem increasingly irrelevant and out of step with the dominant Abstract Expressionist movement. Moreover, many of her works from this period are regarded as quite inferior to those of the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1960s, after a brief flirtation with abstract painting, she had taken to producing works with a palette knife, turning to flower arrangements and cityscapes. But these too were met with shrugs of disinterest.
In 1972, years after her last major show, a major retrospective exhibition of de Lempicka’s works was held in Paris. The show, which had been sparked by a successful 1966 retrospective of Art Deco works at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, rekindled interest in the portraiture of de Lempicka, and today, her paintings are regarded as among the most potent and enduring examples of the Art Deco era.
“Tamara de Lempicka.” Contemporary Women Artists. Gale, 1999. Biography in Context. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.