Cover image for Tamara de Lempicka : a life of deco and decadence
Tamara de Lempicka : a life of deco and decadence
Claridge, Laura P.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Clarkson Potter, [1999]

Physical Description:
ix, 436 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ND237.L545 C59 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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An icon of the Jazz Age, Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka lived a life well worth recording. Until now, however, no one has written the story of this woman of extraordinary talent and notoriety. She was a great beauty, an aristocratic refugee of the Russian Revolution, and a frankly erotic painter who insisted upon Renaissance aesthetics, figuration, and painterly craft in modern art. The sky-high prices attached to her canvases in recent years have still not dispelled the suspicions that a woman of Lempicka's glamour and fame could be a truly serious artist. Yet the reviews of the early twentieth century tell a different story: her work was routinely singled out as competing with major figures of the School of Paris, including Léger, Laurençin, Kisling, and Picasso. In this first critical biography, Laura Claridge draws upon her exclusive access to Lempicka's family, friends, and archives to re-create the life that the painter carefully withheld even from her own daughter: the truth of her birth; her escape from Bolshevik Russia; her determination to become a New Woman; her lifelong bouts of depression; her numerous affairs with the women and men she painted; her flight from Nazi Europe via Havana; and her years in Hollywood and New York as the "Baroness with a brush," all informed by the artistic integrity and social anachronism that condemned her to being written out of the canons of modern art. Emblematic of '20s excess and indulgence, Tamara de Lempicka's life of great wealth, indiscriminate sexuality, and endless intrigue makes for a fascinating narrative. But her paintings have inspired fierce disagreements over issues of class, wealth, and gender in modern art, making her work ripe for critical re-evaluation.  In Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence, Laura Claridge has succeeded brilliantly on both counts, bringing to light the contradictions that fueled the life and work of this provocative painter. Though Paris in the early twenties certainly earned its bohemian reputation, Tamara was playing the game hard by anyone's standards. It seemed to her that she could have it all: respect, money, and sexual gratification on the side. She had arrived at the Gare du Nord only four years earlier, gifted with a painter's talent and a family history of feminine power. Encountering a cultural climate that affirmed art as a remunerative career for women, she also felt freed personally by the Modernist mantra to "make it new" that underwrote every aspect--trivial and profound--of daily life. She was determined to embody that icon of the age, the new woman.

Author Notes

Laura Claridge is the author of a biography of painter Tamara De Lempicka as well as books on British Romanticism, Modernism, gender, and psychoanalytic theory. A popular international lecturer, she was professor of English literature at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, for eleven years. She lives in New York City.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Three astute biographies define the temperaments, visions, and milieus of one indisputable master and two controversial modern painters. Both Claridge and Weber have written the first comprehensive biographies of twentieth-century artists infamous for denying their Jewish blood and other truths about their lives, and living flamboyantly as aristocrats. Lempicka and Balthus were each profoundly influenced by Italian Renaissance painters, and each painted unnervingly erotic portraits. But while Balthus' reputation has ascended, Lempicka, dubbed an art deco painter, has been all but forgotten. Claridge tells the remarkable story of Lempicka's life, and suggests why an artist o

Publisher's Weekly Review

Even a reader with doubts about de Lempicka's artistic output will be charmed by the eccentricities described in this feminist-flavored, engrossing account of the bawdy and amusing painter whose work Claridge sees as an "early protest against the denial of female sexuality." Born into a Polish family in Russia, de Lempicka (1898-1980) was raised in an atmosphere of luxurious frivolity. At 16, she caught the eye of Tadeusz Lempicka by appearing at a St. Petersburg ball with two geese in tow, and her pursuit of the handsome but spineless playboy culminated in an ill-fated marriage. After the Russian Revolution, the couple arrived penniless in Paris, where de Lempicka was encouraged by her family to take up art as a means of support. She threw herself with gusto into the debaucheries of '20s Paris, having numerous affairs with both men and women while the unhappy Tadeusz languished. Her garishly exuberant portraits and nudes were extremely successful in no small part because of her flair for publicity and her high society connections. After she moved to the U.S. in 1939 with her second husband, Baron Kuffner, the press focused increasingly on her extravagance and dinner parties rather than on her paintings, and she began having difficulties with her work, though the decorative sensuality of her early paintings has made her fashionable again among contemporary collectors. The book's final chapters are affecting, as Claridge adeptly shows de Lempicka's decline into a cantankerous society lady, color coordinating her clothes with her car, tormenting her daughter and granddaughters and painting her houses lavender. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

De Lempicka (1898-1980) was one of the few painters who worked in the style of art deco, and her arresting, mannered, provocative, sensual, and hard-edged figurative paintings are now coming into their own. In the past, however, little has been known about Polish-born de Lempicka's life in Europe, Russia, Mexico, and the United States. Claridge rectifies this with an astonishingly thorough examination of Tamara's adventures and accomplishments; her passions, affairs, and marriages; the details of the lives of her daughter and grandchildren; and even some commentary on her portraits and flower paintings. This biography is meticulously researchedÄalmost any question to be asked about her life is coveredÄthe single regret being that there is only one 16-page, color insert of her work. Happily, a more image-based catalog by Alan Blondel is forthcoming. This excellent academic study of an independent woman artist is highly recommended for public and academic libraries.ÄMary Hamel-Schwulst, Towson Univ., MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1: Mythical Beginnings By early afternoon on 19 March 1994, Christie's main auction room at 502 Park Avenue in New York City was filled to capacity. Emanating scents from the thirties--Chanel No. 5, Joy, and the newly revived Arpège--several expensive-looking women, craning their necks to study the forlorn latecomers standing in the back, seemed more interested in the company they were keeping than in the objets d'art. In the middle of the crowd, three drag queens, vamping the roaring twenties in their gold lamé gowns and feather boas, examined the lavish catalog. Their exasperated comments suggested that the presale estimates were higher than they had anticipated. For days the wealthy potential buyers (carefully targeted by Christie's thorough preregistration) had been attending publicity events--dinners and video shows--that emphasized the glamorous, high-profile nature of this sale. Christopher Burge, Christie's crisp British president, took his place at the front of the suddenly silent room, and the dais began to rotate as one exquisite object after another sold quickly, most of them for predictable prices. Gustav Stickley furniture, Tiffany lamps, Jacques Lipchitz paintings: the spotlight lent each item the Hollywood glow of the collection's owner, Barbra Streisand. As the digital board at the front of the room lit up with Japanese, French, and German currencies competing against the dollar, the wood-paneled room seemed to hum with excitement. Suddenly a collective gasp escaped the audience. Tamara de Lempicka's Adam and Eve, painted at the end of 1931, shimmered at the front of the room, its impossibly luminous nudes confounding even those who believed themselves inured to the old-fashioned finish that pre-Modernist artists had valued so highly. Dealer Michel Witmer nodded a bit smugly; he had already provoked many arguments by contending that this painting would prove the crowning jewel of the show. In the face of his colleagues' disbelief, Witmer, adamantly maintaining that Adam and Eve was not painted on canvas, insisted that the preternatural glow of the flesh tones could only result from oil on wood. After all, he had said, "during the 1920s, Lempicka spent hours at the Louvre on a weekly basis studying what she considered the masterpieces of light and color. Clearly she was influenced by the sixteenth-century Dutch paintings that achieved a translucence in their figures partly due to painting on panels." "What am I offered for this extraordinary panel painting by Art Deco's most famous portraitist, Tamara de Lempicka?" Mr. Burge quietly but imperiously began. As the numbers climbed rapidly from the already extravagant presale estimate of $600,000, the room filled with chatter. Promoting the painting, the auctioneer alluded to the peripatetic life that had inspired the artist's dramatic works: Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Paris, Milan, and Cuernavaca. As if on cue, a spate of international phone bids raised the price even further. When the offer reached $1 million, the room grew tense. Numbers were flying on the digital printout, and everyone watched Michel Witmer to see how far his client would go. A woman dealing by phone for her Saudi Arabian collector offered $1.25 million; turning toward Witmer, Christopher Burge intoned, "One point five?" The dealer nodded. Back to the phone: the anonymous caller raised her bid to $1.8 million. After an almost imperceptible sign from his client, Witmer shook his head, refusing the offer to exceed $1.8 million. "Going once," the audience heard, "going twice . . . sold for one point eight million dollars." With commissions added, the final sale was $1.98 million. On that mild March afternoon when the gavel sounded in Christie's main salon, one of the twentieth century's most important and iconoclastic artists was returned to the limelight after a long hiatus. Years of comparative obscurity would yield to public scrutiny as the painter's reputation began its most significant reevaluation in over fifty years. Tamara would have loved and hated the whole affair. Money defined artistic worth in her world: she had refused to sell paintings when the offers insulted her pride. Both the sale price and the international flavor of the bidding would have pleased the painter who lived her life as a citizen of the world. But had she been accosted by the reporters on her exit from the room (as the underbidder for the painting was), she would have raged at their implication that she was being rediscovered, and at their suggestion that her talent increased in proportion to her Hollywood connection. Celebrity was something she appreciated. She had, in the late 1930s, enjoyed socializing with the members of the movie industry, but she had never thought them great judges of art. During the two years she lived in Los Angeles she was known as the Baroness with a Paintbrush, an epithet that motivated her to move to New York in the hope of reestablishing her reputation as a serious artist. A mere four months after the auction at Christie's, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts held a Lempicka retrospective. Art historian Robert Rosenblum enthusiastically observed that Tamara was "a liberated woman and she was frankly erotic . . . a thinking woman's Léger." But in a review entitled "The Price Will Go Up, Tamara," Newsweek's art critic, Peter Plagens, referred to the painter as "practically forgotten," producing "almost soft porn," with only "eighty-four paintings known to exist." (Minimal research would have revealed the current count of almost five hundred.) Tamara, he pronounced, was "the end product, not the producer of art that influences other artists." Excerpted from Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence by Laura Claridge All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.