When it comes to style, whether it be fashion, decor, or art, everything old eventually becomes new again. Even the iconic mirror ball, in all its tacky, glitzy glory, had a renaissance decades after its 70s heydey, popping up in newly refreshed rooms in many a home decorating magazine for a short time. But art deco is one of the few styles that has stood the test of time and never gone completely out of fashion. A big reason for that is the artists who helped keep art deco fresh and in the public eye, especially the tempestuous Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka.
Tamara de Lempicka was born Tamara Rozalia Gurwik-Gorska in Warsaw, Poland on May 16, 1898 to Boris Gurwik-Gorsk, an attorney of Russian Jewish descent, and the Polish socialite Malwina Decler. The two met at a spa and eventually married and had two daughters, including de Lempicka’s sister Adrienne Gorsk. Adrienne would grow up to become famous in her own right as an architect, as she was one of the first women to earn a university degree in this discipline.
At the tender age of 10, de Lempicka’s mother commissioned a local artist to create a portrait of her. When it was completed, de Lempicka did not like it and instead created her own portrait, using her sister Adrienne to complete it and showing her penchant for taking things into her own hands that would be on full display throughout her life.
In 1911, de Lempicka was sent to boarding school in Switzerland, but she would eventually feign illness so she could leave. It was after this that her grandmother took her to Italy, where all the paintings she saw left an indelible impression on her and gave de Lempicka her initial interest in art.
One year later, she traveled to St. Petersburg to spend time with an aunt. Here she met Tadeusz Lempicki, a lawyer living there who was originally from Poland. Five years later and after de Lempicka’s family offered Tadeusz a rather large dowry, the two married. They lived comfortably and had their only child, a daughter named Maria Krystyna Lempicka, who they called Kizette.
The Russian Revolution
Unfortunately, the quiet, comfortable life of the Lempicki family would not last. In 1917 the Russian Revolution began, and soon after Tadeusz was arrested by the secret police. Without knowing where the police had taken him, de Lempicka searched far and wide, finally offering favors to the Swedish consul to assist her in finding him. Once Tadeusz was located, the family fled to Copenhagen, then London. They eventually settled in France, which would change the entire course of de Lempicka’s life.
Les Nabis and Cubism
While in Paris, de Lempicka fell under the tutelage of French painter Maurice Denis, who taught at the famous Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Here, he influenced a group of students called ‘les nabis’ who made post-impressionist art. This was her first and only foray into formal art education.
Andree Lhote and Cubism
Another one of her mentors during this period was Andree Lhote, who was famous for his Cubism creations. Though artists such as Picasso were far more famous for their cubist creations, Denis was famous for adding bourgeoises elements to his work that made them infinitely collectible because they were far more accessible to the masses in ways that Piccaso’s more abstract art was not.
It was Lhote who had the greater influence on de Lempicka, as she too added upscale imagery such as expensive cars to her paintings, which set them apart from other art deco pieces. It was during these years that the Tamara de Lempicka art deco style came to be.
Personal Upheaval and Rise to Fame
During this period, de Lempicka sold her first paintings, which heavily featured her daughter Kizette, through the Galerie Colette-Weil. In the early 1920s, she began to have solo shows in local galleries, increasing interest in her art among collectors.
The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts (from which the term ‘art deco’ was derived) would give her multiple exhibitions, increasing her fame. She also showed some of her work in Italy and her native Poland, winning prizes in competitions.
Unfortunately, her marriage was crumbling during this time, and she and Tadeusz divorced in 1931, just as her star was truly on the rise.
The 1930s marked what is arguably the best decade for Tamara de Lempicka art. She was invited to paint portraits of Queen Elizabeth of Greece and King Alfonso XIII of Spain, both great honors for any artist. She traveled to the United States for exhibitions, showing her work in Chicago and New York City. Galleries sought her work for their own collectors all around the world, thanks in large part to her twist on art deco that set her apart from other artists of her time.
Despite the fact that the entire globe was in the middle of the Great Depression, de Lempicka’s career soared as she amassed wealth painting portraits of the wealthy. She attended many parties and had affairs with both men and women, and became known for her bisexuality and high libido, both of which were scandalous for the time.
Baron Raoul Kuffner
It turns out that the 1930s was a great decade for her personal life too. After an initial bad start to the decade after her divorce, de Lempicka bounced back when she met Baron Raoul Kuffner later the same year. Though the Baron was married, he was carrying on an affair with Nana de Herrera, a Spanish dancer, and commissioned de Lempicka to paint her portrait.
By the time the purposely unflattering portrait was finished, de Lempicka had replaced de Herrera as the Baron’s mistress. After his wife died in 1933, the two were married.
Moving to the United States
By the late 1930s, de Lempicka was becoming increasingly scared of the rise of the Nazis in Europe and persuaded her husband to move to Los Angeles and later to Beverly Hills. In 1941, her daughter Kizette joined her in California after she escaped from France, which was by then being occupied by the Germans. Two years later, de Lempicka and the Baron relocated to New York City.
During this time, de Lempicka had many showings across the country, but her success in Europe simply did not translate across the Atlantic. After the war, she would have showings again in Europe, but even those could not revive her once vibrant career.
After her husband died of a heart attack in 1961, she decided to move to Houston to be with Kizette, who had married a geologist from Texas, effectively retiring. Three years later, she moved to Cuernavaca, in the Mexican state of Morelos where she would repaint some of her most famous works, temporarily reviving her career.
No Tamara de Lempicka bio would be complete without talking about her death in March 1980. She died peacefully in her sleep with Kizette, who had moved to Cuernavaca to take care of her, by her side.
In true de Lempicka form, she ordered her body cremated and her ashes spread over the volcano Popocatepetl. Her death may have been quiet and peaceful, but her final resting place was anything but.
Today, de Lempicka’s paintings are still highly sought after, and famous collectors include pop singer Madonna, Jack Nicholson, and Barbara Streisand among others.