The painting which Lempicka painted in 1931 and titled Idylle stand outs from all the rest of her oeuvre in terms of its subject: it is the only painting which depicts an amorous relationship between a man and a woman. At first this may come as a surprising observation, for it is now well known that Tamara (fig. 1), who had married the Russianized Pole Tadeusz Lempicki in 1916 when she was eighteen, was frequently involved in extra-marital affairs with partners of both sexes. Paintings that feature two or more women and clearly suggest a lesbian connection are numerous in Lempicka's work--indeed, her art has become famous for them. There are as well many portraits of men, her husband and others, most of which were commissions, but a few of them show men with whom the artist had or may have had an affair. The only other painting that she made of a man and woman with overtly erotic connotations is Adam et Eve (Blondeau, no. 147; fig. 2), which like Idylle she painted in 1931.
This tenderly romantic Idylle, also known as Le Départ, is even more fascinating because it is widely believed that Lempicka placed herself in this painting, although she has depicted herself as looking somewhat younger than her actual age--she was entering her mid-thirties at the time. It is possible she may have borrowed some freshly youthful features from her teenaged daughter Kizette, or otherwise simply treated herself to a smoothly polished classical makeover, as she did with many of her sitters. The identity of her dark-complexioned lover, however, a man clad in the naval uniform of an ordinary sailor, is not clear. This was likely intentional; Lempicka may have painted him in profile as a precaution, so that he would not be recognized, except perhaps among the artist's closest and most trusted friends. As Marc Blondeau has suggested, this man, despite his attire, is probably no "old salt"--he is no genuine sailor with whom the artist might have had a passing port-side fling, and given the strongly realist inclination in her art generally, it is unlikely that this painting represents an imaginary fantasy of such an encounter. Lempicka's lover in Idylle has the manner and bearing of a mature and distinguished gentleman, a man of understanding and accomplishment, a fitting companion for Lempicka at this stage in her life and career. He is very likely someone who strongly admired Lempicka and her work, which she gratefully appreciated, returning the compliment in her respect and love for him, bestowing upon him the tender feelings she shows him here.
Lempicka was especially proud of the contemporaneous Adam et Eve, for it fulfilled her wish, as Laura Claridge has noted, "that one of her finest works appear spontaneously, almost divinely inspired." The artist recognized her Eve when a model, a beautiful girl she was painting, picked up an apple from a table arrangement and put it to her mouth. "Don't move," Lempicka ordered. You look like Eve. Now we need an Adam." She remembered an exceptionally handsome policeman who lived down the street, called on him, and engaged him for the next day's session. "And while he was there all nude, his revolver was next to me. So there he was all nude with her all nude. But the revolver was next to me" (quoted in M. Claridge, op. cit., 1999, p. 180).
There is similar sense of spontaneity in Idylle, but while Adam et Eve remains a formally composed modern allegory based on the Bible, Idylle is in every way a more lyrical work, an affecting account of a deeply personal experience. Lempicka wisely painted Idylle not on the same imposingly large scale as Adam et Eve, but on a smaller panel that appropriately reflects the intimacy and quiet intensity of the moment she has enshrined upon it. Idylle is for these reasons not the kind of picture for which Lempicka would have likely engaged the beautiful gendarme, and surely not a some sailor from a local tavern, but someone she actually knew, and very closely, whose presence would lend the authentic quality of a shared romantic experience, a magical moment in time to be savored in memory, a marvelously touching revelation of mature love between a man and a woman.
The complicated divorce and messy divorce proceedings between Lempicka and her husband Tadeusz, begun in 1928, were not completed until 1931. Lempicka had hoped to hold their marriage together, for the sake of Kizette, who loved her father dearly. Tadeusz, however, could no longer tolerate his wife's affairs, rumors of which of usually came out sooner or later and deeply embarrassed him. He nonetheless had no qualms about having an affair of his own, with a young woman named Irene Spiess; as soon as his divorce from Tamara was official, he announced that he and Irene were engaged. Lempicka's personal world was rapidly changing: around this time another important relationship had become irreparably strained; her deep friendship and very likely a sexual liaison with a woman named Ira Perrot, whom Lempicka had known since the early 1920s, was coming to an end (Blondeau, no. 93; fig. 3). Lempicka could always count on the attention and friendship of a persistent suitor, the wealthy Hungarian Baron Raoul Kuffner, whom she met in 1928. In 1931, however, she was as yet indisposed to yield up her independent life style--with the earnings from her work (she claimed to have made her first million by the age of 28) she could easily support her mother and Kizette, while maintaining her expensive Art Deco residence and studio at 7, rue Méchain, Paris. She did not accept Kuffner's proposal until 1934, and then partly because of the worsening global economic situation had begun to adversely affect her career, and concerns for the deteriorating political environment also encouraged her to seek the security of a second marriage.
The best candidate for the mystery man in Idylle would likely be someone, as Claridge has suggested, from among the members of the minor Italian nobility, a circle into which Lempicka gained entrance in 1925. Lempicka had known Italy since her childhood, and felt a greater sense of freedom there; sexual relationships among the upper classes seemed more open and liberated, and people were far more tolerant of displays of personal excess. Lempicka also sensed that an Italian clientele would be well disposed to the erotic undercurrents in her paintings. Thus she set out for Rome in early 1925, ostensibly to study the quattrocento masters whose art she prized above all others, but also with another aim in mind--to establish herself in the Italian art world, in conjunction with her growing presence in the annual Paris salons.
Lempicka found her opportunity. Count Emmanuele de Castelbarco enthusiastically offered to give the artist a solo exhibition--her first--at his new gallery in Milan, the Bottega di Poesia. She returned in November to attend the opening and reap her rewards. The show was a success, and Lempicka found an appreciative audience, and one much to her liking; Claridge has observed that "The Italian circle with which Tamara became intimate included people of exactly her outlook: they appreciated bisexual behavior; physically pretty, dandified but handsome men; and discreet but prolific sexual adventures. Futhermore, they all believed that serious attention to the arts was an essential part of life" (op. cit., 1999, p. 125).
Among Lempicka's new admirers was the Marquis Guido di Giralamo Sommi Picenardi. A Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in the Knights of Malta, he was a trained musician who had studied at the Venice conservatory. His tastes in music ran to futurism and the avant-garde. His wife, Princess Anna Maria (Mananà) Pignatelli, was an accomplished sculptress. It did not matter that each of them was already married, for in this free-living environment, such conventional constraints only enhanced the appeal and pleasure of these liaisons. Lempicka and the darkly handsome Marquis quickly became lovers. Kizette has recounted the beginning of their affair in her mother's own words: "When I had to leave, he came to me and said: 'In three days, you will come to Torino. And you will wait for me.' And I came to Torino. And waited for him. And he came. The first day we went to the opera. The second day we went to bed" (quoted in op. cit., 1987, p. 58).
Two portraits that Lepicka painted in 1925 show the Marquis around the time of the lightning start to this passionate affair (Blondeau, nos. 55 and 56; the former is fig. 4). Lempicka returned to Italy in 1926, and presumably continued her romance with Picenardi; she also responded to the advances of the famous poet Gabriele d'Annunzio. After she returned to Paris, Picenardi and his wife took up part-time residence there as well. Claridge has written:
"Comments [Lempicka] made to her good friend Victor Contreras at the end of her life implied she had become 'sentimentally' as well as sexually involved with Guido Sommi Picenardi... She told her confidant--believably since at this point there was nothing to hide--that the love affair had been secret and decorous... By the late 1920s the Picenardis owned a house in Paris, where they would have socialized with many of Tamara's friends. When Tadeusz announced his engagement to Irene, Tamara may have consoled herself with the idea that Picenardi would take her husband's place" (op. cit., 1999, p. 179).
Lempicka reiterated the idea for the row of moored steamships seen in the background of Idylle from two earlier paintings, Kizette en rose, circa 1926 (Blondeau, no. 81; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes) and the Portrait d'Arlette Boucard, 1928 (Blondeau, no. 95). This imagery conjures up the idea of lovers likened to ships passing in the night, which originated in a poem by Longfellow. Lempicka has in effect personified his metaphor by placing her signature on the side of one of the ships, as if it were named for her. The deep blue tonality of this nocturnal scene is unusual in Lempicka's work, and contributes strongly to its mood: she was more typically more inclined to render the effects of daylight or harsh artificial light on sleekly reflective surfaces, lending her paintings their characteristic polished, metallic sheen. A painting as romantic as Idylle might easily skirt with hollow melodrama if Lempicka had not summoned up the hauntingly magical and mysterious qualities with which she has imbued this scene. The glint of light and love in Tamara eyes is a marvelous and convincing touch, and tells of a moment of true feeling.
(fig, 1 ) D'Ora, Lempicka in evening dress, photograph, circa 1929.
(fig. 2) Tamara de Lempicka, Adam et Eve, 1931. Private collection.
(fig, 3) Tamara de Lempicka, La chemise rose I, 1927. Sold, Christie's New York, 6 May 2007, lot 470.
(fig. 4) Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait def Marquis Sommi, 1925. Sold, Christie's New York, 3 November 2009, lot 34.