The Rise, Decline and Resurgence of Lempicka

“The Baroness with a Brush”

Luke Sparkes
31 Aug 2019

Lempicka is “The Baroness with a Brush”, a title she became known for due to her self-portraits, feminine-power and sensual Art Deco style paintings. Celebrating independence and liberation of 1920s women, Lempicka once said, “I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe.” 

The “Roaring Twenties”, post WWI, a time of high economic growth and the consumer culture and women experiencing liberation. At last, women could vote, many joining the workforce, becoming more financially independent. This began to show in the way they dressed, behaved and expressed themselves.

Maria Gorska, the birth name of Tamara De Lempicka, born on 16th May 1898 in Warsaw, Poland to her well-to-do, bourgeois parents, Malvina Decler and Boris Gurwik-Gorski, a Polish socialite and Russian Jewish Lawyer respectively. Exposed to arts, from the tender age of 10, Lempicka created a portrait of her younger sister. A short spell in a boarding school located in Lausanne, Switzerland, the young Lempicka made a swift move to Italy, a country where her grandmother resided, and it didn’t take long for her to discover the Italian Renaissance painters

Lempicka, picked up her last name at the age of 16 when she married her love, Tadeusz de Lempicka, a Polish Lawyer. Happiness short lived as soon after their extravagant wedding in St Petersburg, Tadeusz was arrested by officials of the Bolshevik government, later being freed after convincing his captors of his release. The then young Lempicka couple, fled the Russian Revolution landing themselves in Paris, where under Maurice Denis and André Lhote she studied art, instantaneously joining the likes of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and André Gide in the Parisian avant-garde scene. 

“Dirty” colours, she described it, Impressionist paintings that is. Rebelling against the then popular style she decided on her style, a clean and vivid one. “My goal is never to copy, but to create a new style, clear luminous colours and feel the elegance of the models.” and elegant they were.

The Rise
Milan, 1925, an art exhibition and Lempicka’s first major one that set of her fame, under the sponsorship of Count Emmanuele Castelbarco.  28 paintings produced in just a mere 6 months, Lempicka’s work had started to succeed as it wasn’t long after when her art began to star in some of the most exclusive galleries in Europe. The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts is where the real rise in Lempicka’s fame began as Harper’s Bazaar, an American, women’s fashion magazine sent journalists to this exhibition, and of course, Lempicka’s work caught their eye and deservedly so. Furthermore, Die Dame a German fashion magazine commissioned a painting from Lempicka, and out came the iconic self-portrait Tamara in a Green Bugatti (1929).

Capturing her independence, wealth and divine beauty, wrapped in a silk scarf, a leather helmet and long white gloves, Lempicka portrayed herself in the hot seat of a green Bugatti racing car. Tamara in a Green Bugatti is one of the arts best known examples of Art Deco portrait paintings, even to this day. Although, there’s humour in it all and her transport at the time was in a small yellow Renault.

Lempicka’s time in the 1920s developed a rapacious intimate desire towards both men and women, paired with her wild parties, Lempicka’s rise continued. Painting some of the world’s richest and most famous, including Queen Elizabeth of Greece, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio.


Tamara in a green buggati

The Decline
Her wild lifestyle began to take its toll on her marriage, causing a divide between her and her then-husband, Tadeusz. It’s to no surprise that a divorce was filed between the two. Lempicka hardly spoke or saw Kizette, her only child, who was living with her grandmother at the time. Even with this, Lempicka had a perpetuate need to portray her daughter in many of her paintings such as
Kizette in Pink, 1926; Kizette Sleeping, 1934; and Baroness Kizette, 1954.

In 1939, just before World War II, Lempicka relocated to the United States, with her second husband, Baron Kuffner, 6 years after tying the knot. Many Hollywood star’s she painted for, kept her afloat until the ritual talk and gustation towards Lempicka’s Art Deco portraits began to decline where Abstract Expressionism took favour.

Trying to stay in the light, Lempicka gave abstract a go, developing a new style using a palette knife. Unfortunately, this did not go down
well with the people, leading to her public exhibitions coming to a halt in 1962. This was the last of Lempicka in public, so to speak, spending most of her life in Texas along with her daughter and her later to last years in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Tamara de Lempicka - The Sleeping Girl

The resurgence
A few years before her last days in the 1970s, Art Deco experienced a miraculous resurgence in popularity. Lempicka’s work was once again widely recognised and respected, following the retrospective exhibition, Tamara de Lempicka from 1925-1935 which was held at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris.

Sadly passing away in 1980 in Mexico, with a request for her ashes to be spread across the volcano, Mount Popocatépetl by Kizette. It’s almost 40 years later her work has become extremely popular and sought after, especially among some of our current A list celebrities, including Jack Nicholson, Barbara Streisand, and Madonna – these are just a few of Lempicka’s devoted collectors. Madonna even had some of her paintings featured in her music videos for Vogue, Open Your Heart, and Express Yourself.


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