Strolling along a marble balcony, having suggestively but with sufficient modesty draped herself in only a satin sheet, this young woman might be an actress making her memorable debut entry in a Golden Age Hollywood film—an aspiring blonde goddess, a freshly alluring face to rival Garbo, Harlow, and Lombard. This lady in white was in fact an entertainer, accustomed to stage lighting—Marjorie Ferry was a British-born, cabaret chanteuse performing in Paris. Having caught the eye of a wealthy financier, she became his wife. To complement his gift to her of a large, gleaming cabochon ring, Marjorie Ferry’s new husband also graced her with the opportunity to display it proudly in a portrait he commissioned in 1932 from the most fashionable, sought-after portraitist in Paris at that time—Tamara de Lempicka. In the space of only the previous several years, the Polish-born artist, known for her sensual nudes as well, had become the most noticeably successful woman among the leading modernist painters.
Celebrated, moreover, as a chic hostess and glamorous party-goer, Lempicka during the early 1930s was at the height of her fame. The professional and social aspects of her life were inextricably intertwined, centered on her specially designed Art Deco atelier at 7, rue Méchain in the 14th arrondissement. Each sphere of activity was indispensable to the success of the other, and together enabled her to attain her own chosen, independent lifestyle, still a relatively rare achievement for a woman at that time. All these qualities enhanced her reputation as the most visible female artist to emerge during les années folles, the post-Great War, pre-Depression era of conspicuous extravagance and indulgent hedonism.
Following a working sojourn in New York during late 1929 into early 1930, Lempicka became the première portraitist in demand among both wealthy Europeans and Americans, those who had an eye for the new, classicised modernism that had come to dominate the international, post-war style. She could accept or refuse commissions as she saw fit. The international range of her clientele was more extensive than that of Kees van Dongen, who, taking a more heated, louche approach to his work, was her chief rival for European commissions, but had few American connections.
Lempicka had been painting since the late 1920s in her signature, high classical style, manifest in every aspect of this boldly conceived Portrait de Marjorie Ferry; indeed, this painting may well mark the culminating consummation of every definitive element that comprised her full-fledged manner. The setting is likely imaginary, as if designed and constructed in a film studio; in Lempicka’s conception, the polished stone architecture of the curving balustrade and four ascending columns enclose her subject, and suggest an Olympian height, from which Marjorie Ferry may gaze down upon the world. The artist’s decision to crop the upper part of her sitter’s head—a cinematic device, but a most daring, irregular choice in formal portraiture—actually has the effect of maximising the viewer’s perception of her stature within the composition. In appreciation of her subject’s chosen expression of artistry, Lempicka may have elected to confer upon her the attributes of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and protector of the arts, described in Homer as 'grey-eyed' also known as Athene Chryse - 'Athena golden'. The prominence that Lempicka gave to the elaborate drapery in her portrait of Ferry is also a direct reference to classical antiquity.
Combining stylistic traits drawn from French Cubism, post-war Purism and Neo-Classicism, her own study of early Italian masters, and showing her awareness of contemporary realist trends in Germany, Lempicka forged her own boldly cosmopolitan, classical figure style. She drew timely and fashionable inspiration from J.-A.-D. Ingres, whose exemplary, mid-19th century classicism had also served as the springboard for Picasso’s return to the figure following the war. The columnar setting in the Ferry portrait suggests that Lempicka may have studied and admired Ingres’s Antiochus et Stratonice, 1840 (Musée Condé, Chantilly).
Like Fernand Léger, who also turned to the figure in the early 1920s, Lempicka was attracted to streamlined, mechanical design, which she rendered in flattened, firmly contoured, but still modeled forms. Unlike Léger, however, she was unwilling to forego, as it were, the pleasures of the flesh—she delighted in painting the sensuality of the body, especially the female figure, in elegant, gracefully contoured forms that project a compellingly palpable, corporeal presence. 'Her art is not cold despite its precision,' a reviewer wrote in Commedia, 22 May 1930. 'Her portraits are alive and even hallucinatory' (quoted in L. Claridge, Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence, New York, 1999, p. 175).
Both Léger and Lempicka capitalised on the contrast of pictorial elements—while he exploited the plasticity of dissimilar shapes and the juxtaposition of often incongruous objects, she was drawn to differences in the perception of material substance and surface textures. In the Ferry portrait, Lempicka integrated the painted semblances of stone, fabric, and flesh into a smoothly harmonised, sensuous pictorial surface. Both of these artists realised a clear, eloquent, and evocative vision of timeless, essential, classical form; their paintings, consequently, persist to this day in appearing as forcefully modern as they were then.
Lempicka quickly developed a pictorial manner that was acutely attuned to describing the liberated assertiveness and unrestrained pursuit of pleasure that characterised the 1920s, testing, stretching, but remaining within the new, more liberal boundaries of good taste. The classical quest for the essential is the pursuit of an ideal, a fundamental truth; as in form, so Lempicka moreover idealised the beauty of character and the individual self in her subjects, in contrast, for example, to the darker, socio-critical, realist approach of German painters, such as Christian Schad, who espoused Neue Sachlichkeit, the 'new objectivity.' The appeal of Lempicka’s work to the new French social elite of the post-war period—including growing ranks of the nouveau riche—was due in large part to its proud and glowing sensuality. Lempicka’s sleekly urbane vision of physical beauty was emblematic of positive, purposeful self-confidence, personal empowerment, and worldly success; her paintings effectively mirrored the aspirations and potential of this dynamic, influential class, to which she, too, belonged.
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 colour 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.' This experience convinced young Tamara to become a painter, and subsequently guided her in pursuing the exacting, essentialised sophistication she would realise in her art. She studied in Italy in 1920, and having already exhibited in the Salons des Indépendants and d’Automne, returned for several more extended stays during 1925-1926, turning her attention to the Moretto da Brescia, Pontormo, and the Mannerists.
'I was the first woman who did clear painting—and that was the success of my painting,' Lempicka declared. 'Among a hundred paintings, you could recognise mine. And the galleries began to put me in the best rooms, always in the centre, because my painting attracted people. It was neat, it was finished' (Lempicka, quoted in K. de Lempicka-Foxhall, op. cit., 1987, p. 53).
Lempicka painted Marjorie Ferry at a crucial juncture in her career, at a time shaped by events that had transpired three years earlier. In October 1929, nine days after she arrived in New York to fulfill a commission from the young heir-to-millions Rufus T. Bush to paint his newlywed wife (Blondel, no. 126; sold, Christie's, New York, 4 May 2004, lot 36), the Wall Street stock market crashed. The artist had already deposited a substantial sum in a bank that soon failed and closed. The Bush portrait and other commissions she attracted during her stay served to cover her losses; as usual, through her considerable skill and resources as a business-person—she claimed to have become a millionaire by age twenty-eight—she was adept in landing on her feet in situations that might have set back or even wiped out other artists.
Wealthy American visitors and part-time residents had buoyed up the Parisian art market; now that their financial lifeline back to the States had been severed, they began to head home. Dealers stopped buying, slashed their prices, and replaced solo exhibitions with group shows. Even leading artists were hard-hit—only Picasso, the most famous and wealthiest of them all, having placed his sizable fortune in the safekeeping of a judicious banker, comfortably rode out the financial maelstrom.
Following her return to Paris in early 1930, encouraged by her first solo exhibition at Galerie Colette Weill in May and able to work her extensive social connections, Lempicka continued to garner commissions and sell her work. Since her divorce from Count Tadeusz de Lempicki in 1928—their twelve-year marriage had often been an 'open' arrangement for both partners, in which she had taken lovers both male and female—she had been the primary provider for their daughter Kizette, her elderly mother as well, and needed to maintain the expensive rue Méchain studio and residence.
'By all accounts, 1932 was an exceptional year for her career,' Laura Claridge has noted. 'As the Depression deepened, Tamara actually profited from those with the most money to lose, who needed to show themselves and others that they were not afraid of the economic turmoil that surrounded them' (L. Claridge, op. cit., 1999, pp. 185-186). Lempicka showed Adam et Eve, 1931 (Blondel, no. 147) in the Salon des Indépendants that opened in January 1932, and the next month participated in the Salon des Femmes-Artistes Modernes, at the Galerie du Theatre Pigalle. Suzy Solidor, the artist’s new lover, also a club singer, may have facilitated Lempicka’s commission to paint Marjorie Ferry, which the artist completed by early May. She included the present portrait in the personal exhibition she opened on 10 May in her rue Méchain studio; two weeks later she sent it to the Salon des Tuileries, in the company of the Portrait de Madame M[orillot], also painted in 1932 (Blondel, no. 161; sold, Christie’s, New York, 6 May 2009, lot 26). In October she was represented in a group show that included works by Picasso, at Galerie Fauvety; she closed out the year by placing La Convalescente, 1932 (Blondel, no. 160) in the Salon d’Automne.
Just as she had suggested in her cinematic treatment of Marjorie Ferry, Lempicka was herself accorded a star turn. On 16 November 1932, Pathé filmed Un bel atelier moderne, a one-minute, thirty-second, black-and-white sequence, with sound, for its series Actualités féminines (Archives Gaumont-Pathé). The camera followed Lempicka as she descended the stairway in her modish studio, then sat at her easel to sketch Suzy Solidor on canvas, as the initial step in painting her portrait, which was completed in 1933 (Blondel, no. 173; Château Musée de Cagnes).
Alain Blondel has pointed out that Lempicka’s painting of Madame Morillot was 'one of the artist’s last big portraits. By 1932 the economic crisis had hit Europe as well, and such lavish commissions had become a scarcity' (A. Blondel, Tamara de Lempicka: Catalogue Raisonné, 1921-1979, Lausanne, 1999, p. 256). Marjorie Ferry’s sidelong, over-the-shoulder glance in her portrait, which followed soon after, was perhaps presciently retrospective—Lempicka’s knowing, fitting conclusion to this transformative, defining period in her career—a farewell, too, to the fabulous decade that inspired it.
In 1934, Lempicka, who never lacked for suitors, finally remarried, having accepted the proposal of Baron Raoul Kuffner, a wealthy Hungarian. Thus freed from all financial concerns, she could paint as she pleased, and she turned to a more philosophic view on life around her, applying her sensitivity and empathy to new subjects, finding strength and character in the faces of people who were humble in station, blessed in spirit.