The Roaring Twenties in Paris—better known locally as Les Années Folles, or the “crazy years”—were appositely named. Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were finding their literary voices when they weren’t getting soused, Josephine Baker was donning her banana skirt and her most sultry moves, and Salvador Dalí was introducing his mustache and his new paintings to the City of Light.
In the middle of it all was Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka, who was dedicated in equal parts to enjoying the liberation and decadence of the decade and to creating novel paintings that were quickly becoming the newest sensation in the Western art world.
From the editors of the glossies to the walls of the elite, de Lempicka’s Art Deco style captivated and captured the soul of the 1920s. But one work was particularly tantalizing.
In 1929, de Lempicka painted a scene of two naked women reclining on a couch following a tryst. It almost immediately captured the eye of a wealthy doctor who would soon become one of the artist’s great patrons.
Less than 14 years after Dr. Pierre Boucard became entranced by “Myrto,” a Nazi soldier billeted in his home fell under the same spell. The not-so-welcome German guest was so—er, inspired—by the seductive scene that he couldn’t bear to part with it. As the Germans retreated, so, too, did “Myrto.” It hasn’t been seen since.
While we know the broad outlines of de Lempicka’s early life, exact details like dates remain a bit elusive. Following in the grand tradition of centuries of high society doyennes, de Lempicka got a little creative when it came to things like her age.
Her birth likely occurred around 1898, though it has been suggested, probably thanks to a rumor started by the subject herself, that she made her debut as late as 1908. Her city of birth was most likely Warsaw, but also maybe Moscow.
What is known is that de Lempicka’s young life was filled with all the parties and privilege that came with being a part of the Polish and Russian elite. From an early age, the headstrong girl was unafraid to go after what she wanted.
When she was 12, that was a trip to Italy with her grandmother, where she was exposed to the Old Masters for the first time and found her ambition to be an artist. When she was just a few years older, it was Tadeusz Julian Junosza Lempicki, a womanizing gadabout from the top echelons of St. Petersburg society.
De Lempicka seems to have forgotten her artistic ambitions in the early years of her marriage. But the revelry was soon broken up by the Russian Revolution, and she was forced to flee with her family, first to Copenhagen, and then to Paris in 1918 after it became clear the rebellion was not a passing fancy.
Life in Paris as a Russian refugee at the tail end of World War I was not easy. France was still struggling to get back on its feet, not to mention to deal with the influx of immigrants escaping the Bolsheviks.
The de Lempicka family had been forced to leave much of their wealth behind, and the jewelry that they had escaped with was going quickly and at lower prices than expected. They needed money and quickly, and it certainly was not going to come from Tadeusz, who couldn’t stop moping for long enough to actually address the scarce food and funds his family faced.
In the analysis of her life, de Lempicka’s is often characterized as somewhat ruthless. Her daughter described her as having “killer instincts,” which she didn’t mean as a compliment, and in 1988, writer John Loughery observed in Woman’s Art Journal that “Tamara de Lempicka was a woman of astounding nerve, ambition, and egomania.”
These observations are undoubtedly true. But what is also true is that, when de Lempicka was faced with being the sole provider for her family in 1918, she didn’t just get a job; she decided that she was going to return to her art and that she was going to make a living from it. By the middle of the next decade, she was doing just that.
De Lempicka was influenced by both the Old Masters, who continued to be her guiding light, and the Cubists who were enjoying their height of popularity in Paris. But she wasn’t content to just follow in their footsteps. In her art as it was in her life, de Lempicka wanted to be an original.
"Among a hundred paintings, you could recognize mine, my goal was: Do not copy. Create a new style,” de Lempicka once said.
And that she did. De Lempicka’s work would come to represent the quintessential aesthetic of a new style: Art Deco. She painted in bold, geometrical shapes with vibrant colors that had a Hollywood high gloss.
“Though loosely tied to the geometric aesthetic of Cubism and the proportionality of neo-Classicism, Lempicka's paintings — characterized by her razor-sharp draughtsmanship, theatrical lighting and sensual modeling — was unlike that of any artist of her day,” Rebecca Fattell wrote for Sotheby’s.
She received her first burst of popularity in 1925, after writers from Harper’s Bazaar spotted her work at an international exhibition in Paris. After that, de Lempicka was on a roll. The glossies commissioned her to create original works for publication, she painted European kings and queens and other celebrities, and she embodied the spirit and aesthetic of the 1920s Art Deco movement.
When she wasn’t going on nine-hour painting benders, de Lempicka was enjoying benders of a different sort.
The artist was the quintessential flapper, partying with the most scandalous artists and society figures of her day. She experimented with her sexuality, attended infamous “women’s only” afternoons, claimed to have once enjoyed a little white powder with André Gide, and made no apologies for enjoying her life to the fullest.
“I live life in the margins of society, and the rules of normal society don't apply to those who live on the fringe,” Lempicka said.
Needless to say, her marriage didn’t last and in 1928, de Lempicka freed herself from her husband.
“She was very conscious of her own image,” Judith Mackrell, author of Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation told the Sky Arts show Mystery of the Lost Paintings. “It was all about the image she presented as an artist as much as the image she produced on canvas. It was crucial to her that every aspect of her own appearance, her own private life, was as beautifully lacquered as her artwork, and it’s as if almost the artwork became an extension of herself.”
One of her most well-known paintings was a commission for the German magazine Die Dame. The self-portrait entitled “Tamara in a Green Bugatti,” is a close up of the painter looking as chic and carefree as can be, a white driving cap holding down her blonde hair, her sultry eyes gazing from beneath smokey lids just past the viewer. She wears cherry red lipstick and has one hand on top of the wheel of her green Bugatti as, one imagines, she speeds recklessly through Paris.
De Lempicka’s life fueled her art and vice versa. So, as she began to experiment with her sexuality in the 1920s, she also began to paint what are known as her series of “lesbian paintings.” She already excelled at portraying powerful, sexy women, but now, she was painting groups of female nudes in scenes that had distinctly sexual overtones.
“The lesbian expatriate crystallized much of what it meant for a woman, in 1920s and 1930s Paris, to be modern: uprooted, mobile, urban, enterprising, culturally ambitious, professionally competent, sexually active, intellectually (and often financially) independent, a la mode — and, finally, visible,” wrote Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer in the collection of essays The Modern Woman Revisted: Paris Between the Wars.
One of these was a painting named “Myrto: Two Women on a Couch” completed in 1929 during the height of De Lempicka’s popularity. In the scene, two women are sprawled languidly on a couch, one holding the other from behind, both unabashedly nude with their voluptuous bodies on full display. The painting, which a writer in The Guardian called, “her most flamboyant lesbian painting,” is thought to be a self-portrait of de Lempicka and one of her lovers.
It is also believed that this is the first de Lempicka painting that captured the eye of Dr. Pierre Boucard. He quickly snapped it up and went about becoming one of the artist’s primary patrons. He purchased a great number of her past and future works, as well as commissioned portraits of his own family (including one of himself in which he looks distinctly like a posh Inspector Clouseau).
Cultural historian Fern Riddell told Sky Arts that in de Lempicka’s painting, “there’s a powerful sensuality there that whilst it would titulate a male viewer, is not for them really. There’s a sense of, ‘You can look at me but you cant have me. You can fantasize you can have me, but you don’t.’”
Unfortunately, one Nazi soldier did not get the message. He saw “Myrto” hanging on Dr. Boucard’s wall, and decided to help himself.
An image of the painting survived in de Lempicka’s own archive, where she had scrawled on the back “stolen by the Nazis.”
Based on this picture and the importance of de Lempicka’s work, “Myrto” was chosen as one of eight paintings that the art and technology firm Factum Arte recreated using digital technology. But despite the publicity of this project and the continuing efforts of Art Recovery International, Myrto hasn’t been seen since that day in 1943.
In 1934, de Lempicka married Baron Raoul Kuffner. Her new marriage and status combined with her distinct style that was so tied to its time period resulted in her work eventually falling out of mode.
At the beginning of World War II, the new couple fled to Hollywood, where the baroness “dazzled society and gossip columnists” for the next decade. But she became frustrated that her identity as an artist and the work itself was not taken as seriously.
When readying for a party with her mother, Gloria Vanderbilt allegedly once commented, “And don’t forget to invite Baroness Tamara de Lempicka-Kuffner. She is such fun, and her pictures are so amusing.”
After the death of her husband in 1961 and the stalling out of her art career, de Lempicka slowly fell of the social map. In the late 1960s, just as her work was beginning to experience a resurgence as Art Deco came back into vogue, the artist was nowhere to be found.
“How could it happen? How could a streamlined siren with a flair for stylish painting and a glittering multitude of admirers on two continents disappear into obscurity as rapidly as she had swept into the celebrity spotlight?” wrote Dorothy Seiberling in The New York Times in 1978. “That is only one of the mysteries surrounding Tamara de Lempicka, a Polish painter d’un certain age (70?) who may be living somewhere in Houston or Paris or Monte Carlo.”
But while de Lempicka may have gone the way of “Myrto” in the eyes of society, she was very much still living life on her own terms. After moving to Houston for a spell with her daughter, the artist decided to relocate to Mexico, where it was reported that “she affected lavender costumes and had her Oriental-style home painted in lavender as well.”
When she died in 1980, she went out with her characteristic dramatic flare. Per her request, her ashes were scattered over the sacred volcano Popocatepetl in central Mexico.