Tamara de Lempicka's Portrait du marquis d'Afflito heralds the emergence, fully fledged, of the famous and highly sought-after line of fashionable portraits of European aristocracy and the nouveau riche that the artist painted between 1925 and around 1933, until the Great Depression finally had an adverse impact on the availability of commissions by which she made her fortune. This painting has been singled out by the scholar and curator Gioia Mori as one of the artist's "most intense and successful portraits of 1925" (op. cit., exh. cat., Milan, 2011, p. 166). It merits notice, moreover, as a pioneering and definitive masterwork in the new style of Art Deco portraiture.
The artist was only twenty-seven when she painted the urbane Marquis d'Afflito in an unconventionally posed recumbent position, his arresting physical presence filling this sleekly designed and gleaming canvas. The Marquis projects a suavely well-cultivated and stylish persona, with the clear inference of indulgence and even decadence that memorably evokes the glamorous life style and times of a particular class during the 1920s, the period known as les années folles--or the "Roaring Twenties." Patrick Bade has praised the paintings of this period as Lempicka's "greatest achievement" (op. cit., p. 118).
This painting marks a decisive moment in the artist's burgeoning career. Within the space of a few months during 1925, Lempicka arrived conclusively at the essential elements of her signature style, in which she orchestrated bold and clear forms that both simplify and strongly characterize the human visage and figure, and were well-suited to describe her sitters' social status and personal style. She furthermore had the good fortune to have been publicly recognized for this achievement in her first solo exhibition, which was held in Milan that winter; her work was well-received, bolstering her growing reputation and opening doors for her back in Paris. The Portrait du marquis d'Afflito was a prime highlight of this show (fig. 1).
The great vintage portraits typically depict those men and women from the elite echelons of a social milieu in which Lempicka freely circulated, with whose members of both sexes she was amorously--and sometimes scandalously--linked. She well-served the interests and tastes of this select clientele, "the rich and the noble," as the artist's daughter Kizette described them, who during the inter-war period were also "on the defensive... They were left with very few countries in Europe to rule any more... They retired to their estates, went private, played life on the surface. Lacking real power, the best they could imagine was pleasure (which they called beauty), lots of it, and they chased it with real abandon. They concentrated on clothes, on bearing, on style" (K. de Lempicka-Foxhall and C.L. Phillips, op. cit., pp. 49-50).
Indeed, Lempicka has concentrated on "clothes, on bearing, on style" in her portrayal of the enigmatically moody and sexy Marquis d'Afflito, casting him here as an iconic epitome of the modern male pin-up. He comes across as if he were a Valentino-like film star of the silent screen--Lempicka's portrait compositions often possess a cinematographic quality, as seen in film stills, or the poses carefully contrived and lit for their expressive effect by portrait photographers in their studios. The Marquis has donned a dashing evening suit of midnight blue (a hue the artist used so regularly that she herself labeled it "Lempicka blue"), a pristine white shirt and burgundy bow-tie; he wears his hair slicked-back and pomaded. The aggressively jutting angularity of the Marquis' shoulders, contrasted with his impossibly thin waist, were formal elements drawn from the era's poster art and fashion plates, and serve to highlight the Marquis' evident preoccupation with a dandyish sartorial appearance.
This sense of contemporaneity is heightened by the daringly cropped and informal posture of the sitter. His reclining "Roman" pose shows off a curiously androgynous aspect, recalling Lempicka's own depictions of reclining female nudes, such as the overtly Sapphic Perspective of 1923, which she exhibited to critical acclaim in that year's Salon d'Automne (Blondel, no. 23; fig. 2). She also drew knowledgeably upon historical precedents of the recumbent male figure in Greek and Roman statuary, as well as Italian Renaissance and Mannerist painting (figs. 3 and 4).
Lempicka's ability to seamlessly blend a brashly contemporary look with historical models marked her distinctive style from the outset of her career. As Kizette has pointed out, Lempicka's painting "was an advertisement for the age," while the artist nonetheless maintained an "adamant insistence on the old masters in art" (quoted in L. Claridge, Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence, New York, 1999, p. 96). This fusion of the old and the new, of popular current style and the high art of the grand European tradition, echoes Charles Baudelaire's description of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' aesthetic program, which the poet-critic understood as a "provocative, adulterous liaison between the calm solidity of Raphael and the affectations of the fashion plate" (quoted in P. Bade, op. cit., p. 41).
The example of Ingres had been instrumental in the "return to order," the growing preference for classical models which became the definitive trend among many leading artists following the wholesale slaughter and societal upheaval of the First World War. Indeed, it is Ingres' curved, volumetric forms that are frequently cited as an important influence on Lempicka's art, apparent here in the draped folds of the Marquis' suit, and in the background foliage. Lempicka absorbed this pictorial language from her teacher, André Lhote, adopting his concept of the "plastic metaphor," stemming from Ingres, in which the shapes and volumes of the human form were derived from abstract, geometric forms. This principle enabled her to successfully integrate the late vocabulary of postwar cubism with the tenor of contemporary life during the freewheeling 1920s.
The geometricized aspidistra leaves in the background recall Joël and Jan Martel's Arbes cubistes that were prominently displayed at the Exposition internationale des art décortifs et industriels modernes in Paris in 1925. The aesthetic or style later known as "Art Deco" made its triumphant appearance on the artistic scene in this epoch-making Paris exhibition. Edward Lucie-Smith has argued that it was through portraiture that the Art Deco spirit "expressed itself more naturally... than through any other kind of painting." He went on to rightly proclaim: "the quintessential Art Deco portraitist is undoubtedly Tamara de Lempicka. The fashionable society of the 1920s and 1930s is now perceived very largely through her eyes" (Art Deco Painting, Oxford, 1990, p. 61). Lempicka's mature style is clearly aligned with the elegance, simplicity and clean lines of Art Deco objets of this period.
Moreover, true to her love of the old masters, Lempicka declared that her personal aesthetic was as much indebted to early Italian painting: "when I went to Italy, all of a sudden in all the museums I saw paintings painted in the fifteenth century by Italians... Why did I like them? Because they were so clear, they were so neat. The colour was neat, clean. I was the first woman who did clear painting--and this was the success of my painting" (quoted in K. de Lempicka-Foxhall and C.L. Phillips, op. cit., p. 53).
Having known Italy since her childhood, Lempicka felt a greater sense of freedom there; sexual relationships among the upper classes seemed more open and liberated than in Paris, 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. She made an extended visit to Italy in 1925, ostensibly to study the early masters. She fit in well with her new acquaintances there, and although married, did not hesitate to enter into intimate amorous relationships whenever the opportunity arose.
Lempicka carried with her a letter of introduction, which she hoped to present to the Count Emanuele di Castelbarco, a painter and influential patron of the arts in whose Milanese gallery, the Bottega di Poesia, artists, the intelligentsia and wealthy Italian society liked to congregate. Castelbarco agreed to see her; however--he later admitted--"only because the doorman told him she was young, blonde and good-looking" (ibid., p. 57). Lempicka's portfolio impressed the Count, who proposed that an exhibition of her works--her solo debut--be held in his gallery towards the end of the year. She agreed, and returned to Paris to begin preparations, assembling some fifty paintings for this event.
The Bottega di Poesia exhibition featured the Portrait du marquis d'Afflito alongside other paintings now numbered among Lempicka's most strongly and freshly conceived works (see fig. 1). This event effectively launched her career. "You must continue your efforts along this line. In all of Europe [you] will be very famous," Jacques Reboud declared prophetically in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, in which the present portrait was reproduced for the first time (quoted in A. Blondel, op. cit., pp. 124-125). Requests for her new brand of portraiture came in from all sides, including an invitation to paint Gabriele d'Annunzio, Italy's foremost living poet. Lempicka soon became, Kizettte has recalled, "the darling of the Italian nobility, the press announced her as a new talent, and even people outside her group of friends and lovers sought her out to commission portraits" (ibid, p. 58).
It is not known how or when Lempicka was first introduced to the Marquis d'Afflito, but it is probable that he moved in the same circles as Castelbarco and his elite clientele. Just as she painted two portraits of the Marquis di Sommi (Blondel, nos. 55 [fig. 5] and 56)--the handsome, married musician whom she took as her lover--Lempicka also executed two portraits of a Marquis d'Afflito: the first in 1925 (the present painting) and a second in 1926 (Blondel, no. 78; fig. 6). Kizette mentioned the "d'Afflito" name in a passage devoted to her mother's taste for the high life: "With the money [earned from portrait commissions] she bought clothes, especially hats... under which she could strike elegant poses in the nightclub La Vie Parisienne, or out shopping with Ira Ponte, or out dining with the brothers d'Afflito" (ibid., p. 84). This plural reference has led Alain Blondel to propose that the portraits of d'Afflito may depict two brothers (op. cit., p. 491). There are familial similarities--nevertheless, their features also display noticeable differences. Other references to these portraits have been based on the assumption that they both depict one and the same sitter.
The recumbent pose the Marquis assumed for the present picture is highly unusual for a male portrait and is certainly unique among Lempicka's depiction of men, who are generally seen standing or seated. The artist normally reserved a reclining posture for her paintings of the female nude, as in the aforementioned Perspective, 1923 (fig. 2), and four subsequent female portraits where the sitters are clothed (cf. Blondel, nos. 75, 84, 95 and 127). Lempicka was partial to the androgynous blurring of gender in regard to configuration, dress and behavior, in which modern men appear ambiguously effeminate while women take on masculine characteristics, reflecting the artist's own known proclivity for bisexual role-playing. Laura Claridge has observed that "the Italian circle with which Tamara became intimate"--the Marquis d'Afflito was no doubt a participant--"included people of exactly her outlook: they appreciated bisexual behaviour; physically pretty, dandified but masculine men; and discreet but prolific sexual adventures" (op. cit., p. 125).
The Marquis' ready posture, his pursed lips and penetrating gaze in the present portrait certainly suggest the possibility of sexual adventure, as Lempicka must have sensed all too well while in his presence: Mori contends that he was one of the artist's many lovers (op. cit., 1994, p. 232, no. 23). The sitter's handsome features and languid elegance are seductive and alluring, but there is also hint at a disquieting undercurrent in his emotional life. Afflito is the Italian word meaning "afflicted," and not coincidently his name may serve to underscore a state of mind. The poet, essayist and novelist Giancarlo Marmori memorably described Lempicka's work as "a daring synthesis of Logos and Eros, of fire and ice" (G. Mori, op. cit., p. 5). There may be passion and the pursuit of pleasure on the Marquis' mind, nevertheless there is a chill in the his expression, perhaps a narcissistic dissembling in his mien, which the portrait's smooth Art Deco plasticism and metallic sheen serve to accentuate.
The Marquis' may owe his social position to privilege and wealth, but he may also possess an attendant "affliction," a malaise, that listless sense of ennui, as echoed in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel of the early 1920s, The Beautiful and the Damned. Lempicka's style of painting is well suited to this telling reflection of both the sitter and his milieu: confident and beautiful on the surface, but unsettled and conflicted within. The seductive surfaces of Lempicka's technique, carefully weighing classical with contemporary elements, draw out and illuminate these complex melodramas of modernity. This portrait is a painting of contrasts and oppositions, containing more revelation of inner character and motivation than may initially meet the eye, where, in its pursuit of pleasure, the modern psyche uneasily mingles the light and the dark realms of its worldly existence.
Tamara de Lempicka painting at her easel, circa 1927. Photograph by Thérèse Bonney.
(fig. 1) Exhibition installation at the Bottega di Poesia, Milan, with the present painting, 1925.
(fig. 2) Tamara de Lempicka, Perspective, 1923. Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva.
(fig. 3) Reclining Dionysus from the Parthenon, east pediment, circa 438-432 BC. The British Museum, London.
(fig. 4) Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, circa 1485. The National Gallery, London.
(fig. 5) Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait du Marquis Sommi, 1925. Sold, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2009, lot 34.
(fig. 6) Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait du marquis d'Afflito (à escalier), 1926. Private collection.