The world of art hasn’t always been as open to women as it is today, but thanks to women like Tamara de Lempicka, a little bit of feminine wiles went a long way to making it a much fairer place today. In fact, let’s take a look at de Lempicka’s contribution to history!
Tamara was a bad girl in the most awesome sense: she was the art world’s version of Katherine Hepburn, all glamour and beauty and sheer willpower. To her, painting was an art form of the highest order, and as such, deserved purity in colors and form that no one else of the day was willing to invest. She looked down on her fellow artists of the Art Deco movement for “muddying” their colors and lines, and set out to show them up by example—because she believed in the elegance of lines, the beauty of color, and the clarity of subject, she was clearly the most exemplary paradigm.
However, she wasn’t content to let her passions be restricted to canvas. Ever the scandalous lady, the high-rolling party girl also led a tabloid-worthy life, with speculations coming in left and right about who she let into her bed—and the word was she didn’t mind which gender she slept with! Today, few would gasp at the allegations, but in the Rockin’ Thirties, the well-known artist felt the cold shoulders of quite a few more austere ladies’ groups.
Green Turban (left), Tamara in the Green Bugatti (right)
Tamara’s lifestyle and passion for her art often mixed, but what’s truly remarkable is the way she accomplished her goals: her painting crystal clear, the colors unmuted and vibrant, and Woman looking every bit the capable, powerful, lovely being She is. One of my favorite paintings by de Lempicka, Tamara in the Green Bugatti, in fact, shows a very self-confident woman in a pretty swank car, with some lovely colors that are more lifelike thanks to her method of meticulous shading.
It wasn’t all easy for this tough girl though. Growing up in Poland to a wealthy but untitled family, she had married a guy she thought would help her clamber up the heights of society but who instead turned out to be a rotten scoundrel worth nothing more to her than his name. He had substantial debt thanks to his gambling habits, and for a while, their only income to maintain their lavish lifestyle came from the pawning of her family jewels. It wasn’t long before she gave birth to their daughter, Kizette, with whom she had an estranged relationship ever after. She found work painting portraits of the haute bourgeoisie among whom she mingled, and was soon able to command a sizable sitting fee.
She occasionally came across tough sitters; one of her subjects was one of Italy’s notorious ladies’ men, Gabriele d’Annunzio—upon meeting him, she quickly found they had an opposing agenda: She’d gone to paint him, but he wanted to seduce her! She left that meeting in a fury.
Her work was so absorbing that she frequently neglected her husband and daughter, leading to their estrangement. However, that’s not to say Kizette wasn’t often in her mother’s thoughts; many of de Lempicka’s paintings are portraits of her daughter.
She divorced her husband in 1928, and not long after met the man who would become her patron, lover and social catalyst: Baron Raoul Kuffner. Thanks to his influence, doors were opened that had before been closed off. Her clientele base grew to include royalty, such as Queen Elizabeth of Greece. Her position in society became even stronger when she married the Baron, achieving both the title she craved and better social standing.
In time, her focus in painting changed; times changed. When Nazi Germany declared war on the world, she smuggled her daughter out of Paris, and did war relief work to help out. She began experimenting in other painting methods, such as the palette knife, which was poorly received—so much so that she gave up exhibiting after the 1962 show at the Iolas Gallery.
When the Baron passed in 1962, she went on a few trips before settling down with Kizette, who put up with her domineering mother by acting as her business manager as well as nursemaid.
Tamara de Lempicka died in her sleep in 1980, cared for by her daughter, having had the rare artistic experience of living long enough to witness the resurgence of her art’s popularity. It is perhaps a testimony of her strength and conviction to live her life without apology that one of her greatest fans and collectors is our modern-day Tamara, Madonna herself, whose collection can be viewed occasionally at museums and galleries.
She first caught my imagination when I was in art school; as an undergrad, I took classes in art history originally to understand why the subject captured the attentions of my then-boyfriend, only to fall in love with art myself. One class was taught by a woman who described her favorite paintings in a husky voice, relating not only the commonly-known anecdotes that accompany famous works, but also personal tidbits that she'd researched, or how she felt when she stood before the work itself. Like Madame X, Tamara in the Green Bugatti was a beloved topic, and not surprisingly, became one of mine. In later years, as I worked in an art gallery, I stumbled across a book full of de Lempicka's work, and was instantly transported back to a dusky bunker in which we held our class, slides being projected against a white pull-down screen. I remembered my teacher describing with a touch of reverence how de Lempicka stubbornly sought her own way in life, working for herself in a time when women in her field were rarely given a small spotlight, in a time when women rarely worked, in a time when women rarely chose whom to love or where to go or how to dress.
Today, we try so hard to define for ourselves what it means to be an independent woman, free from the traditional burdens, that sometimes we forget that the simplest lesson is to just let go and be ourselves.
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