From left Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), La couronne de fleurs II, 1950. Offered in Dialogues Modern and Contemporary Art, 26 June-14 July, online. Right Tamara de Lempicka photographed in 1941.

The enigma of Tamara de Lempicka’s La couronne de fleurs II

Why, in 1950, did the Polish painter revisit a portrait she had finished some 18 years earlier, and add a veil? This haunting work is offered in Dialogues, online from 26 June to 14 July

At the height of her fame, from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) used to lament that ‘days [are] simply too short’. Her routine consisted of ‘going out in the evening, not coming home until 2am, then painting until 6pm by the light of a blue lamp’.

Having fled St Petersburg for Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution, the artist cultivated an image for herself as an exotic emigrée  aristocrat. These were the années folles, the Jazz Age — the years  of optimism, hedonism and extravagance that predated the rise of Fascism and fall-out from the Wall Street Crash.

De Lempicka was predominantly a portraitist, and her portraits were of the social elite she frequented. Her polished Art Deco style suited the era perfectly, oozing elegance and sensuality. She liked to bedeck her subjects in seductive textures, to bathe them in flattering light.

In many cases, the world they inhabit is so rarefied that they don’t even look at us. Instead, as is the case in La couronne de fleurs II, they’re caught in a moment of introspection or rapture.

The title — ‘The Wreath of Flowers II ’ — gives little clue as to its sitter’s identity. When de Lempicka painted a female with auburn hair in ringlets, it tended to be her lover, Ira Perrot. However, there’s a hint of self-portraiture in La couronne de fleurs II, too, in features such as the heavy-lidded eyes.

The painting is trademark de Lempicka in the way that it seamlessly blends classical elements with modern ones

The painting is, however, trademark de Lempicka in the way it seamlessly blends classical elements with modern ones. The subject is adorned with a crown of myrtle leaves, the headdress of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Yet cropping off the top of her head, and down either side, was a device borrowed from contemporary cinema.

La couronne de fleurs II  is being offered as part of Dialogues: Modern & Contemporary Art, an online sale exploring the connections between artists across the 20th and 21st centuries. Works by the likes of Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky and Jean Dubuffet all feature. The de Lempicka is presented ‘in dialogue’ with two portraits by new Ghanaian star, Amoako Boafo; and with Sir Peter Blake’s The National Gallery Madonna.

La couronne de fleurs II  dates back to 1932, ‘an exceptional year’ for de Lempicka, according to her biographer Laura Claridge, when she also painted Portrait de Marjorie Ferry — the work that sold at Christie’s for £16,380,000, setting an auction record for a work by the artist.

Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), La couronne de fleurs II, painted in 1925 and reworked circa 1932 or later. Oil on panel. 12¼ x 8⅝ in (31 x 21.9 cm). Estimate £300,000-500,000. Offered in Dialogues Modern and Contemporary Art, 26 June-14 July, Online
Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), La couronne de fleurs II, painted in 1925 and reworked circa 1932 or later. Oil on panel. 12¼ x 8⅝ in (31 x 21.9 cm). Estimate: £300,000-500,000. Offered in Dialogues: Modern and Contemporary Art, 26 June-14 July, Online

What’s particularly intriguing about La couronne de fleurs II, though, is that in 1950 the artist chose to rework it — hence the ‘II ’ in the title.

The composition stayed broadly the same: the sitter’s head still turned to the left, her hands still raised to the right, maintaining a sense of balance.

The major change was the addition of a gossamer-thin veil, fixed beneath the wreath, which drapes delicately down the woman’s face. To make room for it, the artist removed a fan she was originally holding in her left hand.

Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), Portrait de Marjorie Ferry, 1932. Oil on canvas. 39⅜ x 25⅝ in (100 x 65 cm). Sold for £16,380,000 on 5 February 2020 at Christie’s in London. Artwork © Tamara de Lempicka Estate, LLC  ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020
Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), Portrait de Marjorie Ferry, 1932. Oil on canvas. 39⅜ x 25⅝ in (100 x 65 cm). Sold for £16,380,000 on 5 February 2020 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Tamara de Lempicka Estate, LLC / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

What prompted the reworking? De Lempicka left no written explanation. Was it merely an artistic exercise, a chance for de Lempicka to show her virtuosity, to capture a translucent fabric and render it otherworldly?

There was surely more going on, and a little biographical information on the 18 intervening years offers some clues.

In 1934, de Lempicka married Raoul Kuffner, a wealthy Hungarian baron. Both were of Jewish descent and, sensing the direction in which the political wind in Europe was blowing, the couple decided to move to the US, settling in Beverly Hills in 1939.

Instead of the aristocrats of the old continent, de Lempicka now took to painting Hollywood’s glitterati. Plus ça change, one might say. However, with the world at war, she came to realise that her luxurious Art Deco style had lost some of its relevance.

Her outlook shifted markedly. She began taking an interest in the plight of the poor, and in religion. She painted a number of Madonnas with pure, oval faces. In the words of Alan Blondel, another of her biographers, she went through a spell of ‘intense soul-searching’.

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It would perhaps be going too far to say that she reconceived the subject of her painting as a religious icon, but there’s no doubt that the veil adds a pious overtone. Well into the 20th century, women were asked to wear head coverings in church as a sign of their humility before God — and the woman in La couronne de fleurs II  does indeed have an air of humility.

Such is the mystique that de Lempicka invested in her subjects, it’s impossible to say what’s going through their minds. In the current picture, though, it seems that what started as a secular act of contemplation or rapture was later transformed into one with enhanced spiritual undertones — ingeniously bridging two distinct periods of the artist’s career in the process.