Tamara de Lempicka: Defining Deco

Tamara de Lempicka: Defining Deco

The acquisition at auction of a drawing by Lempicka inspired the de Young Museum to organise the first US retrospective of the artist’s work. Ahead of its opening, two experts reflect on the rich history of the artist’s life, legacy and market
The acquisition at auction of a drawing by Lempicka inspired the de Young Museum to organise the first US retrospective of the artist’s work. Ahead of its opening, two experts reflect on the rich history of the artist’s life, legacy and market

I n art and in persona, Tamara de Lempicka was a star of her own making. Born in Warsaw in 1898, the seductive style she pioneered in paint matched a life built with transatlantic glamour. Nicknamed the “Baroness with a Brush”, Lempicka’s voguish portrait commissions of the 1920s and 1930s – jewel-toned depictions capturing aristocrats and European royalty – are prized among collectors as emblems of the visual luxury of the art deco style.

Lempicka referenced historic works such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ The Turkish Bath, 1862, part of the Louvre Museum’s collection. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/incamerastock

Too often, however, their polish has been misread as superficiality and Lempicka’s originality minimised. In truth, her determined practice was grounded in rigorous technique and a deep knowledge of the history of art. As the de Young Museum in San Francisco prepares for the first-ever US retrospective dedicated to Lempicka, Furio Rinaldi – co-curator of the exhibition with Gioia Mori – met Nick Deimel, Sotheby’s head of private sales, modern art, Americas, to discuss an artist of admirable self-definition.

SOTHEBY’S MAGAZINE: Who was Lempicka to each of you?

FURIO RINALDI: She was a survivor. As a Russian émigré and Polish immigrant in Paris; as a woman artist, making it into the Parisian scene; as someone of Jewish descent, in a very fraught historical time for Jewish people. She had to survive through many things in a crucial historical time, and she did it with incredible assertiveness.

NICK DEIMEL: When you look at her art, it is a testament of the period. It also transcends her own era, because we’re still looking at it today in awe. Her paintings are automatically tied to what defined the 20th century – not only artistically, but broader cultural movements, too. She’s not limited to art; it’s about fashion, jewelry, architecture, design. All of this is intermingled.

SM: Could you speak more to the interplay between this very difficult era and her creative evolution?

FR: She lived through seminal times for the history of Europe. She started in Poland, then moved to Saint Petersburg, where she lived through the October Revolution of 1917. Her husband, in fact, was incarcerated. Lempicka managed to escape and arrived in Paris in the early 1920s, where the energy of the avant-garde settled a little into different kinds of figurative language that reprised the examples of the Old Masters and the classical European tradition. I think her survival instinct told her to leave Europe at the right time: she travelled to the US in 1939, right before the invasion of Austria. She reinvented herself once again as the “Baroness with a Brush”, as she was nicknamed, and became a herald of the grand European pictorial tradition. So in Europe, she was the vessel of modernity, while in America, almost the opposite.

“Lempicka's paintings are automatically tied to what defined the 20th century”
– Nick Deimel, Head of Private Sales, Modern Art, Americas, Sotheby's

ND: She had a very classic education, looking at the Old Masters, the Italian Renaissance and the Florentine Mannerists, then all the way through Cubism, which she got a taste of when she arrived in Paris, and post-Cubism when she was taught by André Lhote. She then defined a language that in the 1920s, artistically, was close to none in terms of recognisability. It is not associated with any school. She was not part of a movement.

FR: She defined her own style. And she is recognised as the embodiment of art deco in painting. If you think of art deco and think of a painting, it’s a Lempicka. There’s no one else.

SM: In terms of her glamorous social life and artistic output, which came first? Was it the social leveraging or the art that got her in the room?

FR: First and foremost, she wanted to be acknowledged for her artistic talent – the critical recognition that a salon can offer. At the time, it was the Salon d’Automne or the Salon des Indépendants; the salon was still the most important platform to be seen and to sell. How did she get there? It is true that she had very savvy, intelligent connections. She was friends with André Gide, the incredible author and intellectual, who was a gay man. Lempicka was bisexual, so they had a connection. At the 1923 Salon d’Automne, she presented a homoerotic scene [Les deux amies, 1923] showing two women, knowing that Gide, president of the jury at the time, would respond to it. Understanding society, being aligned with the taste of the time, was a skill that Lempicka had. Another member of the jury was André Lhote, who was essentially the only artist that Lempicka ever recognised as her teacher. Lhote was the first to formalise this more classical interpretation of the Cubist aesthetic, which Lempicka made her own with a much more prominent reference to the Old Masters. In referencing Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres for nudes – The Turkish Bath, 1862, was the template for the genre of the big ensemble of female nudes – Lempicka wanted to challenge and revive this, but also compete. It was not just admiration, as it was for Lhote, but a way for her to be at the same level of the Old Masters onwards.

La Belle Rafaela (Beautiful Rafaela), 1927, a nude portrait of Lempicka’s muse and lover. Credit: © 2024 Tamara de Lempicka Estate, LLC / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, NY

ND: I totally agree. She doesn’t appear in Paris, then, out of nowhere, starts to paint the social elite. She was portraiting a lot of the people she knew from the social privileges she had enjoyed in Russia who also came to Paris – people that had to flee their countries, people like Lempicka who reinvented themselves and wanted to be portraited to manifest that self-invention. She catered to that, but with an incredible amount of appreciation and understanding of what came before her.

SM: The de Young recently acquired a Lempicka drawing. What does it reveal about her technical practice?

(Kizette) Jeune Fille Dessinant, c.1932. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

FR: The idea of our exhibition stemmed from that acquisition about three years ago. At auction we acquired a beautiful drawing by Lempicka, a portrait of her daughter Kizette as a teenager. It’s drawn with graphite and there’s such an incredibly polished technique; the face almost emerges from the sheet. It’s so beautifully three-dimensional, and it’s a technique that truly anticipates her painting style, which is so sculptural. You have these broad brush strokes that convey beautifully lush and polished volumes, and that starts with drawing – it is anchored in a very deliberate design process and draughtsmanship. In the research for the drawing, I realised that there has never been an exhibition on Lempicka in the US, which I thought was surprising. At the time, the de Young was the first US museum to actively seek and buy work by Lempicka.

ND: Because you don’t have so many Lempicka paintings in US institutional collections.

FR: The only others are in the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art – both were gifts from Kizette. So it was very important to be an active agent in the appreciation of the artist. I am glad because San Francisco is a place where art deco flourished as early as 1925, with magnificent buildings and memorable designs, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, considered to be one of the defining masterpieces of American deco. I also think it is the perfect environment and community to appreciate a queer artist who lived a liberal lifestyle at a time when sexuality was much more accepted than it would be after the war. San Francisco has such a rich and long history of social activism, especially for the queer community.

“She defined her own style. And she is recognised as the embodiment of art deco in painting”
– Furio Rinaldi, Curator of Drawings and Prints, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

ND: In terms of why there has never been a major US retrospective and why US institutions have not actively collected her, I think this goes back to the socioeconomic environment Lempicka was living in. She travelled to America in the late 1920s, but when she arrived, it was the time of the Wall Street Crash in 1929. She actually travelled back to Europe, where her main artistic output was produced. Then there was complete tumult in Europe and a recalibration of the cultural landscape. After the war, when she lived in America, art deco was really not en vogue anymore – it was all about the Abstract Expressionists. So in that moment in time, when a lot of US institutional collections were being built, the artistic output of Lempicka from the 1920s and 1930s was maybe not at the top of their list. Do you think that’s a reason we see far fewer works in US institutional collections?

FR: Absolutely. We are now trying to redefine the art historical canon for what it was, and I think Lempicka has always been reduced as a phenomenon of decoration, fashion; something that is reflective of an era, but not really pushing the boundaries of the language of painting. That’s not true at all. Also her commercial success strangely worked against her. I don’t think you would say of a Picasso that makes $150 million that it takes away from him. The people who collected Lempicka from the creative world – including artists, movie and theatre directors, writers and actors – are maybe not really in the realm of art collectors as one would think. So she was never taken seriously, and there were always reasons to diminish her. Which is very strange and very sexist.

ND: She was a savvy marketer, which, before the ascendance of Pop art, has been viewed very critically, mostly by male critics. But also her interest in fashion, architecture, design, all of those aspects, maybe put her into the decorative corner. I think that’s what is transforming now.

SM: To understand how revolutionary Lempicka’s synthesis of historical styles and new iconographical references was, we could analyse a couple of paintings more closely.

Portrait de Romana de la Salle, 1928. Sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2022 for $14.1 million. Credit: © 2024 Tamara de Lempicka Estate, LLC / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, NY

FR: Portrait de Romana de la Salle, 1928, is a fantastic example of a Lempicka portrait, for several reasons. You have the abstract background reminiscent of skyscrapers, of modernity; these sharp edges that contrast quite strikingly with the softness of the dress that Romana is wearing. This is a turning point in fashion for women: we have witnessed a stark departure from the corseted, structured late-19th-century style to much more form-fitting, free-flowing materials and dresses that emphasise the body, providing women with a lot of liberty of movement. With their draperies and folds, they also reference classical antiquity. After the destruction of war, there’s a need for reunification and we witness a return to classicism and figural forms. And that is true for the arts, but also for fashion.

ND: When you look at the nudes, La Belle Rafaela, 1927, is one of the most sumptuous of the 20th century. The way she works with colour, with shadows, is reminiscent of Caravaggio. Then, of course, you have the subject of the self-portrait. We can’t talk about Lempicka without talking about the 1929 Self-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti), depicting herself in a car she didn’t even own because she actually had a yellow Renault. But this is all about her creation of the self image.

SM: Following her post-war fall from fashion, when did we first see a resurgence of interest in Lempicka?

FR: Her resurgence really happened in 1972. The 1970s was a moment of renewed interest for the art deco period. It’s actually the time when the art deco definition was formulated. A couple of dealers in Paris – Alain Blondel and Yves Plantin – owned a gallery called Galerie du Luxembourg and were very passionate about the art deco era. They came across Lempicka’s work published in many journals and reviews of the period. So they called her – at the time she was living in Cuernavaca in Mexico – and she picked up the phone and was almost in disbelief that these two young Parisian dealers found her work extraordinary.

“This is all about her creation of the self image”
– Nick Deimel, Head of Private Sales, Modern Art, Americas, Sotheby's

Their exhibition [of her work] focused on the golden age of 1925–35 – the height of her art deco style. That was such a tremendous success, and prompted the inclusion of Lempicka in several other exhibitions that museums were putting together on the deco moment. The interest that artists and actors had for Lempicka – shortly after, Madonna started collecting her – added notoriety. Lempicka managed to return to Paris in 1975 and enjoy this last victory lap in the city that really saw her ascend to fame. She died in 1980, but had a final moment of critical recognition that she so craved all of her life.

SM: You mention Madonna’s famous Lempicka collection. Is there a relationship between celebrity interest and broader market interest?

ND: Yes, definitely. Artists and figures such as Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson and Wolfgang Joop had an astute understanding of her importance long before the market did. It was really these visionary collectors that were trailblazing and establishing the market for her. And with the results we’re seeing now, entering the height of the multimillion-dollar market at auction, you can see that it is having a much broader appeal. People now understand why she is so important. Exhibitions such as Furio’s show help to contextualise why she should be represented in important collections about the 20th century.

The artist carefully curated her image in Self-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti), 1928, painted for the cover of Die Dame, a German lifestyle magazine for independent women of the early 20th century. Credit: © 2024 Tamara de Lempicka Estate, LLC / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, NY

SM: Is there any difference between the Lempicka works that tend to be sold at auction versus private sale?

ND: I would say no, because it’s very, very difficult to even find them. The 10-year span that Galerie du Luxembourg focused on, that’s what the market is looking for. But when you think about an artistic output of 10 years, which is really where the record prices are currently being achieved, it is an incredibly short amount of time. The market does not have the luxury to choose between auction or private sale. And for you, Furio, maybe it’s also interesting from a loan perspective. It is certainly incredibly difficult to find works that are available for sale, because these collectors love living with them.

FR: Gioia Mori and I are so grateful to the many great lenders. Yes, it is undeniable that Lempicka’s iconic works belong to that magical decade. But I think the role of an art historian, a curator, working on a big retrospective is to provide a more rounded portrayal of the artist and not reduce her to an art deco poster girl. Personally, I love the early still-lifes that she did. The kind of post-Cubist, Russian avant-garde Futurist still-lifes that she did in 1921–25. You can see her coming to a fully formed style through something that is much more derivative. It is important to see the full arc, and also to highlight moments that are lesser known but nevertheless will help provide audiences with a more unified portrait of this great artist.

Tamara de Lempicka is at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, 12 October 2024–9 February 2025. The show will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in spring 2025

Cover image: Tamara de Lempicka, Jeune fille en vert (Young Woman in Green), 1930–31, on loan to the de Young Museum in San Francisco by the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Credit: © 2023 Tamara de Lempicka Estate, LLC / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, NY. Digital image © CNAC/MNAM, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY


Nick Deimel
Head of Private Sales, Modern Art, Americas

For Connoisseurs Sotheby’s Magazine

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top