Bathed in a luminous bright light, the central characters of Tamara de Lempicka’s 1930 composition Les deux amies exhibit the poise, elegance and grace that characterize the artist’s most successful portrayals of the nude female body. Positioned side-by-side, the two women lean casually against the wall of what appears to be a balcony, the warm tones of their bodies and sensual, serpentine curves standing out against the cool, angular forms of their surroundings. Peering over the edge, their attention caught by some incident at street level that the viewer cannot see, they are the embodiment of the beautiful, seductive, strong female protagonists which had come to dominate Lempicka’s oeuvre during the 1920s.
As the hedonistic “Roaring Twenties” came to a close, Lempicka was at the height of her international fame. Combining elements drawn from French Cubism, Purism and Neo-Classicism, as well as her own study of Italian Renaissance masters, she had forged a boldly cosmopolitan classical figure style, characterized by its precise draughtsmanship, theatrical lighting and dramatic, sensual modelling of the human body. Described in 1935 by Magdeleine Dayot as a “curious blend of extreme modernism and classical purity, [that] attracts and surprises…,” Lempicka’s chic and inimitable style of painting appealed to the new social elite of her day, and she quickly became one of the most celebrated and in-demand portraitists in Europe (quoted in G. Mori, Tamara de Lempicka: The Queen of Modern, exh. cat., Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome, 2011, p. 21). Recently returned to Paris following a highly successful working trip to America, Lempicka spent much of 1930 solidifying her reputation in the French capital—she renewed and cultivated her contacts among the city’s elite, hosted exclusive gatherings at her elegant Art Deco atelier in the 14th arrondissement, and participated in numerous public and commercial exhibitions.
The secret of her artistic success, Lempicka maintained, lay foremost in her technique, based on a taste that she formed very early in her appreciation of art. In 1911, in the company of her maternal grandmother, thirteen-year-old Tamara spent a six-month sojourn in Italy, staying in Florence, Rome, and Venice. “All of sudden in the museums I saw paintings done in the fifteenth century by Italians,” she later recalled. “I loved them. I thought. Why did I like them? Because they were so clear, they were so neat. The color was neat, clean. The Impressionists painted from imagination more than from nature; they did not paint well; they did not care about technique. I said to myself: it’s not precise. Mind the precision. A painting has to be neat and clean” (quoted in K. de Lempicka-Foxhall and C. Phillips, Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka, Oxford, 1987, p. 53).
These influences came to the fore in works such as Les deux amies. Focusing on the nude female form in all its sensual glory, Lempicka renders her models as smoothly polished, classically idealized types, their contours clearly defined and almost sculptural in their roundness. Gracing their voluptuous forms in an array of softly gradated flesh tones, Lempicka imbues her figures with a compellingly palpable, corporeal presence that brings to mind the highly sculptural bodies of Michelangelo. However, Lempicka’s women remain strikingly modern, their delicate painted nails, subtle use of rouge and lip stain, and short, bobbed hairstyles signaling to the viewer that these are contemporary women, with all of the taste, elegance and character of a typical 1930s Parisienne. The strong directional light, meanwhile, casts a dramatic chiaroscuro effect within the scene, creating a dynamic play of shadows that owes a debt to contemporary portrait photography and cinematic devices.
Lempicka’s evident delight in capturing the sensual beauty of the female body was commended by her contemporaries. In a review of her Parisian solo show at the Galerie Colette Weil in May 1930, one critic wrote: “In her paintings everything is caressed with love and a meticulous brush. At the same time she shows a skillful, confident conception and a taste for pure line and simple shapes. Her drawing is clear and sharp; her painting smooth with extreme skill and mastering of craft. Her paintings remind us of the classics in museums but with infinitely more seduction and sensitivity. This is not really realistic painting: she could be called realistic if the term were enlarged. Her art is not cold despite its precision. Her portraits are alive and even hallucinatory” (quoted in L. Claridge, Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence, New York, 1999, pp. 174-175).
The identities of the two women who posed for Les deux amies are unknown—Lempicka was an inveterate party-goer and did not hesitate to solicit those who caught her eye to pose. Having said this, the sharp aquiline nose, long neck and full lips of the blonde figure seen in profile may be seen to echo many of the artist’s own features, suggesting the figure is something of a self-portrait. Similarly, the dark hair and curvaceous form of the second woman could perhaps be a portrait of Ira Perrot, Lempicka’s closest female friend, confidante, and lover, with whom she enjoyed a relationship for almost a decade. Graced with hazel eyes, a thin oval face, and raven hair, Perrot appeared more frequently than any other sitter in Lempicka’s paintings during the ten-year period ending in 1932, sitting for both portraits as well as providing the inspiration for protagonists in a number of the artist’s nude figure groupings. Indeed, Perrot is said to have posed for the shapely reclining figure in the lower right foreground of Lempicka’s grand composition Femmes au bain, of 1929 (Blondel, no. 120; Private collection).
The physical proximity of the women on the balcony combined with their relaxed demeanor in the face of one another’s nudity imbues the scene with a heady eroticism, suggesting the pair enjoy a more intimate connection than just friendship. However, unlike Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of female lovers, Lempicka focuses less on physical lust or the passionate liaisons of her characters, and more on the quiet, amorous moments that exist within a relationship. This direct expression of female sensuality—voluptuous, passionate, but still within the bounds of good taste—was central to the allure of Lempicka’s art during this period, and perhaps explains her decision to exhibit Les deux amies at the Salon d’Automne of 1930.