She’s been called “the Madonna of the 1920s,” “the Grande Dame of Deco,” and “the steely-eyed goddess of the machine age.” But until the 1960s, Polish-born Tamara De Lempicka (1898–1980) was all but airbrushed from art history.
It’s not that she lacked talent, admirers or buyers—she had plenty. The problem was with the Roaring Twenties’ art critics. She didn’t fit the mold and, as a result, became the artist they loved to hate.
That’s history. We’re putting her back on a pedestal. Here’s what you need to know about this sensational femme-fatale of the jazz-age.
- She received a crash course in art history at 13. During the winter of 1911, Tamara travelled to Italy with her grandmother. Together they explored the great museums of Florence, Venice, and Rome. This visit—and her early exposure to the masters of the Italian Renaissance—laid a solid foundation for a career in painting.
- At first, she painted to support her family. After marrying at 17 and falling on rough financial times, Lempicka began dabbling with portraiture in Paris to support her daughter and husband. Later she painted to finance her lavish lifestyle and cement her diamond-studded position in high-society.
- Her style was bold and novel. At the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Lempicka learned techniques from the Les Nabis painter Maurice Denis and the Cubist André Lhote. However, she was intent on constructing an entirely new style, one that was powerful, sexy, and larger-than-life.
- She played the part. Lempicka reveled in her elevated position in society and is said to have intentionally magnified her image as one of the most fashionable, sought-after portrait painters of the bourgeoisie. She was also skilled in the art of self-promotion, which served her well, but irked art critics.
- She mixed business with a lot of pleasure. Tamara was a prolific artist and self-made woman, but she was also a notorious hedonist. Even when she was working, she’s said to have taken frequent breaks for massages, baths, champagne, and desires of the flesh. She also threw lavish parties and indulged in every vice that came her way.
- She struck a pose. Lempicka enjoyed leafing through the pages of Vogue, playing a starring role in fashion photography, and using herself as a model for many of her portraits. Much later, in a meta twist of fate, Madonna would feature Lempicka’s paintings in no fewer than four of her music videos, including Vogue.
- She flipped the script. At 25, Lempicka painted the Portrait Du Marquis D’Afflitto in a completely unorthodox manner. He’s relaxed, recumbent, and rather “come hither.” Some consider this her response to art history’s centuries of reclining female nudes, like Edouard Manet’s Olympia and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque.
- She placed herself confidently behind the wheel. Lempicka’s Autoportrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti) was commissioned for a German magazine who lauded her as “a symbol of women’s liberation.” She was literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat, clearing a path for female artists for decades to come. Also, this painting became one of her most famous works and the best-known example of Art Deco portraiture.
- She made a million by the time she was 28. This isn’t hard to fathom considering she counted King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Queen Elizabeth of Greece, the Duchess de la Salle, leaders of industry, as well as the Paris, New York, and Hollywood crème de la crème as her upper echelon clients.
- She’s now considered one of most iconoclastic artists of the early 20th century. Lempicka may not have played the art game according to the rules and guidelines set forth by scholarly critics and historians, but she eventually changed the expectations placed on women and left a striking legacy of Art Deco portraiture.
In her life and art, Tamara De Lempicka forged her own way quite unapologetically. As a proto-feminist, she wanted it all: love, a flashy career, passion, decadence, admiration—and she got it. And now she’s reclaiming her rightful place in art history, and the limelight, just the way she would have wanted.