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Tamara de Lempicka
“Les Juennes Filles” (circa 1930), Tamara de LempickaCourtesy of David Benrimon Fine Art LLC

Tamara De Lempicka: a radical, bohemian, bisexual artist loved by Madonna

Tamara De Lempicka was the art deco painter whose work transcended her time – here’s why

Tamara de Lempicka’s reputation proceeds her. As the portraitist of the 1920s bohemian Paris elite, she depicted the illustrious and notorious figures from the between-the-wars avant-garde idyll on the Left Bank. She was a seductress of men and women alike and, by her own admission, chose to live in the margins, beyond the “normal rules of society”. 

Despite being born into privilege, Lempicka faced hardship as a young woman when she was forced to flee St. Petersberg in order to escape the Russian Revolution in 1917. She reinvented herself as a portrait painter in Paris as a means of survival and self-expression, becoming one of the seminal art deco artists of all time. 

As her painting “Portrait de Marjorie Ferry” (1932) goes on sale at Christie’s for an estimated £8-£12 million, we revisit some of the key aspects of Tamara de Lempicka's life and work that make her such a modern figure. 


Tamara de Lempicka was born Tamara Gurnick-Gorzka in 1898 in Warsaw (then part of the Russian Empire). As the daughter of a successful Russian attorney and a Polish socialite, she was born into a world of privilege, happily oblivious to the devastating world wars looming on Europe’s doomed horizon. 

Lempicka was a precocious child. Her first conspicuous attempt at being an artist was when she was ten or 12. Her mother had commissioned an established local artist to paint her daughter’s portrait but the young Lempicka hated posing and was convinced she could do a better job of the painting itself. Taking the artist’s pastels, she instructed her younger sister Adrienne to adopt a pose and painted her portrait to great acclaim from her family. Although the artwork hasn’t survived, and maybe the story is slightly apocryphal, it gives us an insight into Lempicka’s character: her astounding self-belief, her desire to have the agency of a creator rather than the passivity of a subject, and irreverence for her male ‘superiors’.

Incidentally, her younger sister – the subject of this legendary first portrait below – also went into the arts. Adrienne Gorska is credited as being one of the few women of her day to receive a university diploma in architecture, and eventually became a member of the French Union of Modern Artists. Gorska worked primarily in Paris between the wars, designing modernist and art deco furniture. She also designed a Parisian apartment for Lempicka which was apparently decorated with chrome-plated furniture, before later designing the iconic modernist Cinéac cinemas. 


In 1919 Lempicka, aged just 21, found herself facing disaster. Having married a wealthy lawyer named Tadeusz Łempicki, the couple’s idyllic life in St. Petersberg was derailed in 1917 when the Russian Revolution forced them to flee their home, abandoning most of their possessions in their wake. They eventually made it to Paris but, by 1919, her husband had still failed to find work, the money they’d raised by selling off the family jewels was dwindling and, by this time, they also had a daughter, Maria Krystyna “Kizette”, to consider. It was a time of deprivation. 

At this crisis point, Lempicka decided to take action and pursue a career in painting. “There are no miracles,” she’s quoted as saying. “There is only what you make.” In this spirit of self-actualisation and survival, she enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where she studied under Maurice Denis and André Lhote. 

She thrived in the art deco world, developing her highly-stylised technique, inspired by Rennaisance art she’d seen on her teenaged-travels through Italy with her wealthy grandmother, but influenced by neo-cubism, futurism, and art deco. Lempicka’s work recalled French neo-classicism but incorporated vital elements of modernity – cinematic lighting, futuristic metropolitan backdrops, and advertisement-like composition. 

She worked tirelessly, painting for nine-hour long sessions with barely a break. She distinguished herself from her peers through her work. “I was the first woman to make clear paintings”, she later told her daughter, “and that was the origin of my success. Among a hundred canvases, mine were always recognisable. The galleries tended to show my pictures in the best rooms because they attracted people. My work was clear and finished. I looked around me and could only see the total destruction of painting. The banality in which art had sunk gave me a feeling of disgust. I was searching for a craft that no longer existed; I worked quickly with a delicate brush. I was in search of technique, craft, simplicity, and good taste. My goal was never to copy, but to create a new style, bright, luminous colours and to scent out elegance in my models.”

But, according to her daughter, Lempicka also had a “killer instinct”.  She was shrewd and determined and had a heightened sense of self-promotion. With her polished social skills, her Greta Garbo looks, and the magnificent outfits donated by Paris couturiers, such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, Lempicka cut a striking figure. Her reputation as a portraitist gathered momentum relatively rapidly. She swiftly ascended into the upper echelons of bohemian Parisian society, moving with ease through the grand drawing rooms of the Left Bank, in glamorous circles with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and the writer Colette (and apparently snorting coke with André Gide).


Lempicka was enthralled by the lascivious lifestyle of the progressive Parisian aesthetes. She conducted a series of scandalous affairs with men and women, gaining a reputation for her unrestrained libido and predatory manner. According to The Guardian she was known as “a hot little potato” (make of that what you will). She attended “women only” afternoons held by the American poet Natalie Barney (a figure credited with inspiring one of the seminal queer novels of all time, The Well of Loneliness by Radcliffe Hall), and became friends with Vita Sackville-West (the inspiration for one of the other most acclaimed queer novels ever written – Virginia Woolf’s Orlando). “I live life in the margins of society,” she said. “And the rules of normal society don’t apply to those who live on the fringe.”

One notable liaison was with Suzy Solidor (an openly-lesbian and notorious womaniser, exhibitionist, singer, actress, and nightclub owner) resulted in one of Lempicka’s most famous paintings. At the time, Solidor was a celebrity – she’d sat for portraits by Picasso, Francis Bacon, and Man Ray, and she was widely referred to as “the most painted woman in the world”. The story goes that Solidor asked her lover to paint her portrait and the artist agreed on one condition – that Solidor agreed to pose nude. Naturally, Solidor agreed. Lempicka’s painting is unashamedly provocative, depicting Solidor gazing provocatively at the viewer.


In 1929 Lempicka was commissioned to celebrate the independence of women for the cover of German magazine Die Dame. This self-portrait, “Tamara in the Green Bugatti”, became a defining image of art deco. It depicts the artist looking icily beautiful, a blond curl just visible beneath a tight-fitting Hermès helmet, with a leather-gloved hand resting on the wheel. Lempicka is gazing into the future with determined, but aloof, purpose. It’s an image for its time, with the close composition of a magazine advertisement, promoting the futurist romance with speed and the machine age, the glamour of the roaring twenties, the momentum of modernity. 

As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s and the world moved slowly but inexorably towards the Second World War, the glamorous world of excess depicted in this painting was, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, in its final throes. In a sense, this famous self-portrait is a fiction: the car wasn’t really a Bugatti, it was her own small Renault, modified to give the impression of wealth and glamour. And the glorious future she was speeding towards was actually, unbeknownst to her, an epilogue: the final act of Europe as everyone knew it. 

When war did break out, Lempicka and her new husband (by this time she’d remarried Baron Kuffner) fled to the US, where they both remained for the rest of their lives. But some of the figures associated with Lempicka during her Paris years would eventually be discredited for their sympathy with fascism, most notably Solidor, who conducted herself questionably during the Nazi occupation. Lempicka has also been described by art critic Fiona McCarthy as “an artist of the Fascist super world”,  and her work characterised as exuding “the dark and dubious glamour of authoritarian discipline.” Clearly, Lempicka was influenced to some degree by the futurist movement, which was inextricably linked with fascism and the “glorification” of war as “the world's only hygiene.”

But, regardless of these criticisms, the incontrovertible truth of “Tamara in a Green Bugatti” remains: it is, as Die Dame declared it, “a symbol of women's liberation.” The figure in that image is at the wheel – she has agency, she’s in control, and she’ll mow you down if you’re in her way.


Jack Nicholson and Madonna are among the prominent figures known to collect Lempicka’s paintings. Madonna has previously lent work from her collection to international exhibitions and Artnet reported the singer as saying, “I have a ton of her paintings in New York. I have a Lempicka museum.”

References to Lempicka have recurred symbolically in Madonna’s work throughout her career, featuring in the music videos for “Open Your Heart” (1987), “Express Yourself” (1989), “Vogue” (1990) and “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” (1998). Her paintings also appeared in the movie set of Who’s That Girl (1987) and the Blond Ambition World Tour (1990). 

It’s not difficult to understand what this self-confessed “Material Girl” sees in Tamara de Lempicka, “the first woman artist to be a glamour star”. Lempicka’s soaring ambition, her unapologetic promiscuity, and her powerful depiction of formidable women make her a thoroughly modern figure.