“T he term Art Deco,” wrote Martin Greif in 1981, “would surely have puzzled its proponents, practitioners, and even its detractors sixty years ago – since it didn’t exist in its own time.” Taking its name from the landmark 1925 exhibition in Paris, the eclectic style of geometric forms, streamlined luxury and bold colors celebrated the social and technological progress of the interwar period. Artists, too, felt its sway, as modernity touched nearly every medium – from art and architecture to textiles and fashion.
The Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka was a queen among Art Deco painters. F.T. Marinetti declared, in his 1909 “Futurist Manifesto,” that the roaring motorcar was “more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace,” and Lempicka captured the opulent, metallic glamor of this new machine age better than most. Born in Warsaw in 1898, Lempicka escaped to Paris after the Russian Revolution, finding some remnants of her comfortable early life there with her aunt and uncle. Urged by her sister, Adrienne, Lempicka, who had studied in St. Petersburg, apprenticed with Nabis painter Maurice Denis and later the Cubist André Lhote. It wasn’t long before her spirited depictions of both the nouveau riche and aristocratic elites, plus an expanding roster of international clients, served both to enrich the artist and elevate her status as the most sought-after portrait painter in Europe.
A self-assured bohemian who relished her own glamor and magnetism, Lempicka developed an unmistakable and commanding style. One of her most iconic images is Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1928, commissioned as the cover of the fashion magazine Die Dame. A formidable force in the sleek sports car, Lempicka presents herself as an unapologetic femme fatale, scarf billowing, in full command of a virile masculine object.
Expert Voices: Scott Niichel on Tamara de Lempicka
“Among a hundred paintings, you could recognize mine.”
Throughout her work, Lempicka shrewdly inflected classical art historical references with the glittering desires of the Jazz Age. Her alluring figures – primarily women, sometimes the artist’s lovers – fill the canvas, as if constructed by weighty cylinders. Rendered with smooth, metallic luster, they appear like glass-eyed androids, bodies twisting and turning. Their cool, detached atmosphere is only broken by an erotic sensuality – what one critic famously derided as a “perverse Ingrism.”
The extravagant Portrait de Romana de la Salle, 1928, depicts the daughter of the Duchesse de La Salle, the artist’s close friend. It radiates elegance and vitality, while evoking the figuration of Botticelli, Raphael and the Italian Renaissance masters whose works Lempicka visited as a child. The painting also typifies her daring assimilation of the avant-garde: the razor-sharp draftsmanship of Neue Sachlichkeit, the spatial logic of Surrealism and the deconstructed geometrization of Cubism.
Lempicka’s significance was matched only by Bernard Boutet de Monvel, a handsome dandy whose sophistication – and that of his portraiture – epitomized the glamor of the années folles. A gifted draftsman (owing in part to his father, an artist and children’s book illustrator), Boutet de Monvel composed paintings with an architectural precision and nearly photographic accuracy. His highly finished Autoportrait Place Vendôme, 1932, reveals his fierce admiration for the work of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; Boutet de Monvel assumed many of the Neoclassical painter’s views on the simplicity of line, modeling and the intellectual labor of painting.
As did Lempicka, Boutet de Monvel painted a starry array of social elite, including Mrs. Vincent Astor, Prince Léon Radziwill, Lady Charles Mendl and the Marquis de Cuevas. Among his most famous images are his portraits of the Maharaja of Indore, a noted collector and arts patron, which exude the young royal’s exquisite elegance and polish. In the first sketch of the second portrait, the Maharaja wears his traditional costume and sits on a low zellij wall, framed by sculpted cypresses and Indo-Saracenic architecture. The realized portrait substitutes the avant-garde purity of a neutral background. It serves to highlight the sovereign poised upon a white gaddi, the Holkar throne, adorned with the Indore Pear diamonds and accented in color by the radiant sword and ceremonial sash between his legs.
Lempicka and Boutet de Monvel both thrived in the prosperous golden age of post-war Paris and abroad, becoming as much a part of the social scene as their famous sitters and clientele. As Lempicka later boasted: “I was the first woman who did clear painting – and that was the success of my painting. Among a hundred paintings, you could recognize mine.”