Tamara de Lempicka (1895-1980) was the epitome of the freewheeling, bohemian "New Woman" of the '20s and '30s. In her paintings, she merged elements of Cubism with a graphic style to set her individual stamp on Art Deco.
Born into a wealthy family of Polish descent in Russia, Tamara's parents divorced and she was raised by her grandmother and an aunt. She married a handsome young lawyer named Taduesz Lempicki. When Taduesz was arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1917, she managed to obtain his release. They escaped to Paris, where they changed their name to de Lempicka. With her husband unable to find work, by the time their daughter, Kisette was born, the family was impoverished. Tamara turned to her skills as an artist to support the family. She eventually divorced Taduesz and married Baron Raoul Kuffner. They emigrated to America in 1939.
In Paris, Tamara studied art with Maurice Denis and Andreé Lhote. Denis was a post-Impressionist who emphasized graphic design, while Lhote worked in the Cubist style. Lhote showed Tamara how to modify Cubism to retain a degree of realism. As a result, the figures in her painting are a strong, vibrant blend of Cubism and a stylized graphic design that came to be referred to as "Art Deco." Tamara began painting portraits of the well-to-do and socialites. Her paintings were displayed in the Gallerie Colette Weill, where they attracted much attention and sold very well.
Besides her portraits of wealthy industrialists, entertainers, writers, scientists and exiled nobility, she also painted several nudes. Her most iconic painting is probably her 1925 self-portrait, in which she sits behind the wheel of a green Bugatti. She used her daughter, Kizette, as a model in several paintings. In 1927, she won first prize at the Exposition Internationale des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux for a painting of her daughter entitled "Kizette on the Balcony." In 1931, at the Exposition Internationale in Poznan, Poland, she won a bronze medal for her portrait of Kizette receiving her First Communion.
When Tamara and her second husband, Baron Raoul Kuffner, moved to America, she became a favorite artist of the Hollywood stars. She was viewed by Americans as the rich Baroness Kuffner who painted as hobby, rather than as an artist. She and the Baron moved to New York, where she did some interior decorating for friends; in 1962, the Baron died. Tamara began experimenting with a new style of painting using a palette knife but her one exhibition drew little attention. She moved to Texas to be with her daughter. There, Tamara continued to paint, storing her canvases away.
Art Deco Revival
The 1970s saw a revival of interest in Art Deco. Tamara purchased a house in Mexico and was joined there by her widowed daughter. She died peacefully in her sleep March 18, 1980, attended by Kizette. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at the volcano Popocatepetl. She did not live to see the renaissance of her art work. In 1984, Barbra Streisand purchased one of her paintings titled "Adam and Eve" for $135,000; in 1994, Streisand sold the painting for $8 million dollars.
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