During the years following the First World War, "les anées folles," Paris was notorious for its climate of sexual license, but haute-bourgeois propriety still wielded a firm hand against those who dared to transgress too far. 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 personal excess. Lempicka 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 agreed to give the artist a solo exhibition--her first--at his new gallery in Milan, the Bottega di Poesia (see note to Lot 30). She returned in November to attend the opening and reap her rewards. Kizette de Lempicka-Foxhall, the artist's daughter, has recorded that Lempicka "was soon the darling of the Italian nobility, the press announced her as new talent, and even people outside her group of friends and lovers sought her out to commission portraits" (in Passion by Design, New York, 1987, p. 58). Lempicka found an appreciative audience, and one much to her liking; Laura 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" (in Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence, New York 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. Lempicka was married as well, but in this free-living environment, such constraints did not matter--she and the handsome Marquis 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 I will wait for you.' 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., p. 58).
The present painting is one of two portraits that Lempicka painted of the Marquis Sommi in 1925; the other is Portrait de Guido Sommi, in which the Marquis is seen wearing a long coat with a large fur collar (Blondel, no. 56). Even the most extreme styles of the day cannot account for the drastically angled cut seen in the padded shoulders of the Marquis' suit. Lempicka may have deliberately injected this dramatic, cubo-futurist treatment of his clothing in tribute to the Marquis' preference for the jagged lines of modern music, and perhaps even to signify his confident, aggressive and impassioned entry into her life.