Tamara De Lempicka: An Interview with the
Iconic Artist's Great-Granddaughter
Check out our recorded Video Event, Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka, to join ADSNY and Marisa de Lempicka for an online illustrated talk celebrating the life and legacy of her great-grandmother––the renowned and trailblazing artist, Tamara de Lempicka. The presentation includes a number of little-known works by the acclaimed artist and exclusive photographs from family albums! Learn More
ADSNY president Roberta Nusim interviewed Marisa de Lempicka about her great-grandmother, acclaimed painter Tamara de Lempicka. Together with her mother Victoria, Marisa manages the Tamara de Lempicka Estate, devoted to protecting and enhancing the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most important women artists.
RN: How does Tamara’s art reflect her life?
ML: Tamara grew up in Warsaw, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, and lived through the Russian Revolution, the 1929 crash, the Spanish Civil War, and two world wars. Always forced to look for new horizons and opportunities, she eventually moved to Paris, Beverly Hills, New York, Houston, and finally Mexico. Because of her creative instincts, Tamara's subject matter and style constantly evolved in response to her times and surroundings.
RN: How did she get started? How did she get to Paris?
ML: My family has some of Tamara’s earliest paintings and sketches. As a young girl, she experimented with watercolors and pencil drawings, realistically depicting flowers, her family, and the Polish countryside. In 1918, following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Tamara fled to Paris with husband Tadeusz Lempicki, staying there till 1939. Studying at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, she perfected her draftsmanship and the craft of oil painting. Unable to afford to pay models, she painted family members, neighbors, and friends.
RN: Which artists and designers inspired her?
ML: Renaissance artists, including Botticelli and Michelangelo, and later artists such as Caravaggio for his use of light. She was drawn to El Greco’s bright colors; she experimented with Cubism. Critics have compared her to Ingres, the French Neoclassicist. She also found inspiration in the era's fashion, architecture, cinematography, photography, and ads. An avid reader of magazines and newspapers from around the world, she followed the latest trends. Her friends included designers like Marcel Rochas, Coco Chanel, Madame Grès, and Rose Descat; they would offer her some of their most beautiful creations to wear at her art openings and events.
By 1925 Tamara had developed her own style. The paintings she’s famous for today are from 1925–38, before she moved to the U.S. The quintessential Art Deco painter, she depicted her characters with a blasé urbanity and haughty gazes; they are independent, contemporary, modern, even a little cold—the “modern man” and “modern woman” in the era of skyscrapers and the Machine Age. Her palette included vermilion red, metallic green, Renaissance blue (as she called it), and shades of black, white, and gray. She boasted, “My goal is never to copy, but to create a new style of clear, luminous colors and to feel the elegance of the models.”
In the 1970s she recreated some of her most important works of the 1920s and 30s. I think that at the end of her life, she wanted to relive her most famous era, when she was young and beautiful. I remember sitting in her bedroom in Cuernavaca. In her late seventies she still had her magic, passion, and determination. She was wearing a painting smock and one of her oversized hats, standing by a large window (she only painted with natural light) focusing on her painting. I could smell the oil paint in the air as she was trying to recreate that vermilion red she had used for the lips of the sensual women she painted in the 20s.
RN: Who are some of the best-known subjects of her portraits?
ML: In Tamara’s own words from Passion by Design, by my grandmother Kizette de Lempicka-Foxhall,1 “I painted kings and prostitutes, those who inspire me and those who make me feel vibrations.“ Her models and clients included the nobility and high society of Paris, Milan, and New York.
She also frequently painted Kizette, in works like The First Communion, which received a bronze medal at Poland’s 1929 Poznań International Fair, and Kizette en Rose, purchased by the Musée d’arts de Nantes in 1928.
She enjoyed painting people whose beauty and style captivated her. One of these was Rafaela, whom Tamara approached in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. As Tamara related the story, while taking her usual morning stroll, she suddenly noticed a woman walking some distance in front of her, at whom everyone coming in the opposite direction stopped to stare. Curious, she walked quickly past her and then saw why everyone stopped: she was the most beautiful woman Tamara had ever seen, and she knew she must paint her. And she did for an entire year, producing seven magnificent paintings, including the very sensuous La Belle Rafaela, which The Sunday Times Magazine of London called “one of the most remarkable nudes of the century.”
RN: How did her commissions come about?
ML: Her commissions frequently came through contacts made at parties and social gatherings. One important early contact who transformed her financial situation was Dr. Pierre Boucard. She was commissioned to create some of her most iconic works for his family and charged a small fortune for them. Later Baron Raoul Kuffner commissioned Tamara to paint his lover, the Spanish dancer Nana de Herrera. He became one of Tamara’s biggest collectors and, after the death of his wife and Tamara’s divorce, became her husband.
In October 1929, a commission from industrialist Rufus Bush brought Tamara to the United States for the first time. Having discovered the artist's work while strolling past a Paris gallery, Bush commissioned her to paint a portrait of his fiancée, Joan Jeffrey, as a wedding present. Jeffrey was the granddaughter of Thomas B. Jeffrey, the automobile manufacturer who made the first Ramblers. Bush was the son of Irving T. Bush, builder of Bush Terminal in Brooklyn and Bush Tower on W. 42nd Street. Tamara admired Manhattan's skyscrapers, for her the ultimate in modernity, and used the towers of Midtown for the painting's background. She continued to use skyscrapers as backdrops for portraits she painted later in Europe, like Adam and Eve and Portrait of Madame M.
The Bushes were married for only a few years and when they divorced Mrs. Bush put the portrait in storage. It remained forgotten for almost 60 years, until Mrs. Bush’s daughter read about it in my grandmother’s book: Passion by Design, and found it. The painting sold at Christie’s in 2004 for $4.6 million, breaking the artist’s record at the time.
RN: Which artists and designers did she influence, past and present?
ML: Tamara has influenced artists in fashion, the beauty industry, photography, literature, music videos, and theatre. In the 1930s she collaborated with Revlon on a campaign for a new lipstick. In 2016, she was the inspiration for Shiseido’s Clé de Peau Beauté product line, Fearless Beauty. Armani and Lanvin created dresses inspired by the stunning satin blue dress in The Musician and the gorgeous emerald-green gown in Lady in White Gloves.
Legendary Vogue photographer Steve Meisel recreated Lempicka’s style when photographing Madonna for a Louis Vuitton 2009 ad campaign. Musician Florence Welch was photographed by Karl Lagerfeld for the cover of her single Shake It Out, looking as if she just stepped out of a Lempicka Art Deco portrait. Madonna has been one of Tamara’s biggest fans and collectors. She incorporated elements of Lempicka’s unique aesthetics into her music videos Express Yourself (1989) and Vogue (1990), where her silhouette echoes Lempicka’s Cubist, geometric style. The video Open Your Heart (1986) opens with oversized images of La Belle Rafaela and Andromeda.
Her life story has inspired novels, including The Last Nude by American writer Ellis Avery. Canadian John Krizanc wrote the play Tamara (1987) about her meeting with Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio. A new musical, Lempicka, inspired by Tamara’s life—especially in Paris, and including the period when she painted La Belle Rafaela—opened at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2018 to great reviews and public reception. Plans are being made for a Broadway run.
RN: How do you think Tamara's living in Paris at the height of Art Deco influenced her art?
ML: Art Deco influenced her art and she influenced Art Deco. Tamara was an avid reader and a sponge for culture and new trends. She was inspired by important elements of the Art Deco style, such as sleek geometrical forms and urban landscapes, which can be seen clearly in her paintings from this era. Her style was clean, precise, and elegant. Demand for her portraits grew, and she was able to command large sums for them, enabling her to personify the modern woman—a woman of her era with her sleek blonde hair, red lips, and lacquered nails; her eternal cigarette; her independent lifestyle; and her fashionable clothing, by some of the top designers of the era, including Madame Grès, Coco Channel, Edward Molyneux, and Schiaparelli. She drove a sports car, she managed her career as well as her finances, and she lived life in Paris as she pleased.
Tamara socialized with Chagall, Foujita, Kiesling, Van Dongen, Marie Laurencin, the Comtesse de Noailles, and André Gide. They would gather at the cafes in Montparnasse like La Rotonde, Brasserie La Coupole, and Café du Dôme to discuss art, politics, and philosophy.
RN: There weren't many celebrated women artists in her time. How was she received by the art world during her active years? Was she a victim of any anti-feminist sentiment?
ML: During her lifetime I don’t think she was a victim of anti-feminist sentiment. In my opinion, this happened later with art historians. How many famous women painters can we name? I don’t think this is because women artists are less talented than male artists. It’s because art historians have included very few women artists in the art historical canon. But this is changing. Many prestigious museums are now presenting exhibitions of artworks by women, new books are being written, and we are discovering and rediscovering some fantastic women artists.
I think the reason Tamara is not usually included in the canon is not only because she is a woman, but because her art does not fit any particular art movement.
RN: During her lifetime was she able to support herself from sales of her works?
ML: Yes, by 1920 her portraits commanded up to 50,000 francs, or $500,000 in 2020. By 1928, age 30, she had already accumulated a million dollars, $15 million in 2020.
RN: Who holds most of her art today? Where can her works be seen?
ML: One of her biggest collectors is Madonna, who owns five of Tamara’s most important paintings, including Andromeda or The Slave, Nana Herrera, and Woman with Dove. Others include Jack Nicholson; Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican business magnate; and Tim Rice, lyricist of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar; as well as Donna Karan; Barbra Streisand; and German designer Wolfgang Joop.
Museums holding her works include the Musée d'Art Moderne and Centre Pompidou in Paris; Musée d’arts de Nantes; the National Museum of Warsaw; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the National Museum of Women in the Arts; in Washington, D.C.; and Museo Soumaya in Mexico City.
Since her death in 1980 there have been twelve retrospectives of her work—in Japan, France, Spain, Mexico, England, Austria, South Korea, and Italy.
RN: Does her work frequently come up for auction? Can you talk about important recent sales?
ML: Her works at auction always break records, especially the past two years. The three most important recent sales have included La Musicienne, from 1929, which sold at Christie’s for more than nine million dollars, well over the estimate of six to eight million and La Tunique Rose, from 1927 sold at Sotheby's for more than $13 million, also well over the estimated price of $6 –$8 million. Portrait de Marjorie Ferry from 1932 sold at Christie’s in February 2020 for $18.8 million, which after the buyer’s premium comes to $21 million and makes Tamara de Lempicka's works the second most expensive by a woman artist after Georgia O’Keeffe.
RN: Are there family stories passed down through the years that you can share about her?
ML: I think one of the things that remain with me about Tamara’s stories is how one small act can change someone’s life and how important it is for everyone, especially for women, to have family support and encouragement. I say this because Tamara’s life was transformed after Clementine, her maternal grandmother, a formidable woman, took her to Monte Carlo and then Italy for a vacation. While in Italy they visited museums in Florence, where she fell in love with Renaissance paintings. Clementine always believed in Tamara.
When Tamara was a young teenager, her aunt Stefa took her into her home in St. Petersburg and opened a whole new world for her, with visits to the Mariinsky Theatre ballet or the opera, taking her to parties with the elite of society at the Winter Palace (the Hermitage), buying her wonderful Parisian-made dresses, and lending her jewelry from her fabulous collection.
Another woman who influenced Tamara immensely was her sister, the architect Adrienne Gorska, whom she loved and admired very much. Adrienne was one of the first women of her day with an architect's diploma. When Tamara ran out of money after selling the jewels she brought from Russia, and Tadeusz refused to get a job, it was Adrienne who suggested Tamara start painting as a way to support herself. Adrienne reminded Tamara how talented she had been as a little girl. Tamara took her advice and signed up at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. After just a few years, she became the most requested portraitist of her day.
While Tamara spent countless hours at her easel producing the fabulous paintings we know today, it was Malvina, Tamara’s mother, who took care of Kizette. If Tamara had not had a grandmother who had encouraged her to be independent, in an era where women were still considered the property of men; if she hadn’t had an aunt who showed her the finer things in life; if Adrienne hadn’t reminded her of her innate talent; and if she hadn’t had a mother willing to help when she needed an extra hand, Tamara would not have become self-sufficient and successful in her career.
RN: Does her Paris home still exist? Is it open to the public?
ML: It still exists but can’t be visited by the public. My mother and I were fortunate to see it while in Paris for Tamara’s exhibition at the Pinacothèque de Paris in 2013. The owner of the studio was kind enough to invite us for tea. It wasn’t painted in the sleek grey color Tamara had picked and it did not have the fabulous Art Deco chrome furniture Tamara and her sister Adrienne had designed, but the magnificent floor-to-ceiling window, where Tamara used to paint, was still there. I had goosebumps when I saw it. I could imagine Tamara standing by her easel, in her smock, passionately painting, with her brush in one hand and her cigarette in the other. On the second floor—the bar area or smoking room—was exactly the same, with its polished walnut and chrome design. This is where Tamara entertained guests. She learned about “the cocktail hour” during her trips to the United States and adopted the American custom, which was hugely popular with her clients and patrons.
We are in the process of creating a private museum in Tres Bambús, Tamara’s home in Cuernavaca, in collaboration with the local government and renowned Mexican sculptor Victor Manuel Contreras, who was Tamara’s closest friend in Mexico. This project is very close to my heart, since I have so many wonderful childhood memories of visiting Tamara and Kizette in this fabulous residence. We very much hope this dream comes true, to protect the home Tamara loved so much. It has breathtaking gardens and views of the Popocatapetl volcano, where, according to her dying wish, Tamara’s ashes were scattered by Kizette and Victor.
RN: Why do you think Tamara Lempicka’s work continues to have such great appeal today?
ML: Tamara’s artwork reflected her captivating personality; it’s as if part of her soul is alive in her paintings. Each relates a story, giving the impression that there’s an intriguing secret behind the image. That was Tamara’s personality—her desire to intrigue, to leave an aura of mystery about her life and her work. In her own words, “I was the first woman to paint clearly, and that was the basis of my success. From one hundred paintings mine will always stand out and so the galleries began to hang my work in the center because my painting was attractive; it was precise, it was finished.”2
Publicity photograph of Tamara de Lempicka.
Tadeusz Lempicki, 1928. Collection of the Musee National d’Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Kizette en Rose, 1926. Portrait of the artist’s daughter whom she frequently painted.
Bar in the artist’s New York penthouse at 322 East 57th Street, from 1942 to 1961.
Portrait of Marquis d’Afflito, 1925.
Portrait of Mrs. Boucard, 1931.
The Musician, 1929. Blue dress used as inspiration for designs by renowned fashion houses.
Autoportrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti), 1929.
Lady with Gloves, 1930. Collection of the Musee National d’Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
About the Interview:
If you are interested in limited-edition, estate-certified serigraphs or would like to learn more about Tamara’s feature length movie, please contact Marisa de Lempicka at firstname.lastname@example.org. The sale of these serigraphs helps the estate keep sharing Tamara’s artwork and legacy.
1. Quotation cited in Kizette de Lempicka-Foxhall, Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka (Abbeville Press, 2020).
All Photos: © All Photos and Paintings Tamara de Lempicka Estate. TamaraDeLempickaEstate.com.
Publicity photograph of Tamara de Lempicka.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, Winter 2020. View a digital version of the full journal here.