“Tamara tended to show her affection in the one way she knew best—painting—and she often used [me] as a model, pouring her motherly love into the portraits for the world to see,” wrote Lempicka’s daughter Kizette, in a tell-all memoir of the boundless ambition, worldly appetites, and liberated assertiveness that enabled the artist to become one of the most sought-after modern portraitists of the Parisian années folles, the years after the First World War (Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka, New York, 1987, p. 77). In the present life-sized portrait, painted around 1924, Kizette is only seven or eight years old, but she already plays the part of a fashionable young ingénue. She wears a short, fuchsia-colored dress with a low waistline and narrow belt, which represented the very latest word in children’s clothes at the time. Her blonde, curly hair is stylishly cropped just below her ears, and she inclines her head with a hint of coquettishness, unabashedly meeting the viewer’s gaze with a small, enigmatic smile. “Kizette seems to be accustomed to being beautified like a small adult from her youngest years,” Gioia Mori has written (op. cit., 2011, p. 144).
Kizette, Lempicka’s only child, was born in St. Petersburg in September 1916, when the artist herself was only eighteen and newly married. The following fall, when the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, the young family was forced to flee Russia, selling Lempicka’s jewelry to pay the way. They eventually arrived in Paris in the summer of 1918, dispossessed and dependent on the largesse of wealthy relations. When it became clear that Lempicka’s husband Tadeusz had no intention of seeking work, Lempicka enrolled in classes at the Académie Ranson and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and sold her first pictures within months. Her teachers were Maurice Denis, the Nabi painter who turned to the Italian quattrocento for inspiration in the early years of the twentieth century, and André Lhote, the cubist who followed the “call to order” following the war and worked within the ethos of the new classicism. Lempicka exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1922 and the Salon des Indépendants the next year, her first forays onto the international art stage.
Lempicka’s earliest known portrait of Kizette, painted around 1922, shows the sitter very much as a young child—seated as though for a studio photograph, with her teddy bear at her side—and the artist still employing an older, expressionistic approach (Blondel, no. B.9). The quickly applied diagonal brushstrokes construct the volumes in a Fauve-like fury entirely different from the exquisite formal refinement that would characterize Lempicka’s mature work. By the time she painted the present portrait only two years later, in contrast, her signature manner was already well-developed. Combining elements drawn from Cubism, Purism, and Neo-Classicism, as well as her own study in Italy of Renaissance masters, she forged a boldly cosmopolitan, classical figure style, emblematic of the purposeful self-confidence, personal empowerment, and worldly success to which the new social elite of her day aspired. It is this cool and urbane vision of physical beauty, at once idealized and aggressively modern-looking, that informs the present painting of Kizette, notwithstanding the sitter’s tender age.
Particularly evident in the present portrait is the principle of “plastic metaphor” that Lempicka learned from Lhote, in which the shapes and volumes of the human figure were based on an underlying foundation of abstract, geometric forms. Lhote had admired this idealized approach in the work of Ingres, newly fashionable again in the post-war era, and Lempicka was likewise drawn to this tendency, which placed a premium on clarity, the quality she valued in modern painting before all else. Here, Lempicka has simplified the forms of Kizette’s figure into shaded curvilinear volumes in warm tones, which stand out against the harmoniously restricted, gray hues of the generalized interior setting that serves as a backdrop. The close cropping of the figure within the frame reinforces the compact unity of the design, while Kizette’s subtle, unexpected gesture of clutching the curtain beside her lends the scene an element of momentary dynamism.
“I was the first woman who did clear painting—and that was the success of my painting,” Lempicka later recounted. “Among a hundred paintings, you could recognize mine. And the galleries began to put me in the best rooms, always in the center, because my painting attracted people. It was neat, it was finished” (quoted in op. cit., 1987, p. 53).
Pleased with the success of the present painting, Lempicka quickly went on to create two more full-length portraits of Kizette in stylish contemporary dress, which she exhibited widely and to great acclaim. “The large-scale portraits she did of Kizette,” Alain Blondel has written, “remain among the most noteworthy of her artistic accomplishments” (op. cit., 1999, p. 493). In Kizette en rose (1926), the first of Lempicka’s paintings to enter a public collection, the artist’s daughter wears a touch of pink lipstick and a long belted top over a pleated tennis skirt; her glossy hair is neatly coiffed, and she glances up from a book with an inviting look in her eyes (Blondel, no. B.81; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes). In Kizette au balcon (1927), which won high honors at the Exposition Internationale des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, the eleven-year-old sitter has opted for a short, shapeless shift and a tousled hair style; her expression is a touch sulkier, youthful compliance giving way to the nascent decadence of adolescence (Blondel, no. B.82; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris).
Kizette continued to sit for Lempicka as she got older, posing by turns as a holy communicant, a Polonaise in traditional garb, and a sleeping nymph (Blondel, nos. B.102, 174, and 182). Modeling guaranteed Kizette time with her glamorous Chérie, as she called her mother, and became a symbol of their special closeness—even as Lempicka’s increasing devotion to her art, multiple extra-marital affairs, and debauched nights in clubs and cabarets took their inevitable toll on family life. Kizette found herself principally in the care of her grandmother Malvina during her younger years, and then sent away to boarding school as soon as she was old enough; Lempicka’s marriage to Tadeusz ended in 1928, after a long stormy period. “It was a reckless, adventuresome, exhilarating time for her,” Kizette recalled. “Her art and the world that went with it had become life for her. She was the center, and Tadeusz—even Kizette—simply must accept that fact” (op. cit., 1987, p. 41).