Against a backdrop of sleek and towering skyscrapers, two young women nestle close to one another, their intimacy a refuge within the emblematic modern metropolis. Their eyes heavy with erotic bliss, their bare skin visible in tantalizing glimpses beneath a fluttering teal-green scarf, Lempicka’s Les jeunes filles are two contemporary lovers, here depicted in close-up like a photograph, on a compact panel that reflects the quiet intensity of their shared moment. The warm tones and the sensual, serpentine curves of the figures stand out against the cool, angular geometry of the cityscape, while Lempicka’s fully realized, signature manner provides the unifying conception, each element of the composition rendered as if in molded and polished polychrome steel. Combining aspects of cubism, purism, and neo-classicism, as well as Lempicka’s own study in Italy of Renaissance masters, this was the boldly cosmopolitan style that brought the artist, at the height of the Parisian années folles, her most enduring fame.
“I was the first woman who did clear painting—and that was the success of my painting,” Lempicka later recounted. “Among a hundred paintings, you could recognize mine. And the galleries began to put me in the best rooms, always in the center, because my painting attracted people. It was neat, it was finished” (quoted in K. de Lempicka-Foxhall, op. cit., 1987, p. 53).
The background of Les jeunes filles represents a stylized version of the Manhattan skyline, which deeply impressed Lempicka upon her first visit to America in 1929-1930. The impetus for this trip was a commission from Rufus T. Bush, the young heir to an oil and manufacturing fortune, to paint a portrait of his new wife Joan. Lempicka arrived in New York in early October aboard the luxury liner Paris and was instantly infatuated with the teeming, modern city. Nine days later, the stock market crashed, triggering a succession of bank failures; Lempicka lost a large sum of money that she had just deposited. Unfazed, she took the opportunity to extend her stay abroad, completing the Bush portrait (Blondel, no. B.126; sold, Christie’s New York, 4 May 2004, lot 36) and then securing additional commissions to help recoup her losses. She spent Christmas at a ranch in New Mexico with a new paramour, returning to Paris in time for the Salon des Indépendants in January 1930.
Alain Blondel has proposed that Lempicka painted Les jeunes filles during her trans-Atlantic sojourn, on a support that she had carried with her from home: “Lempicka appreciated this 5F format [35 x 27 cm.] because it enabled her to crop her images very tightly. Perhaps she brought along several of these very handy panels in order to do paintings on them during her stay in New York, as may well have been the case for this work” (op. cit., 1999, p. 214). Upon her return to France, Lempicka’s first task was to paint in the Manhattan skyline at the upper edge of La Musicienne, an allegorical portrait of her long-time lover Ira Perrot that she intended to show at the Indépendants (Blondel, no. B.117; sold, Christie’s New York, 11 November 2018, lot 21A). She continued for several years thereafter to use the city’s skyscrapers as a backdrop for her paintings, seamlessly integrating this archetypally modern architectural form with her cool and urbane vision of physical beauty.
Paintings that feature two or more women and clearly suggest an erotic, Sapphic connection are numerous in Lempicka’s work—indeed, her art has become famous for them. In the years following the First World War, Paris witnessed a loosening of traditional gender roles and sexual mores that attracted creative, unconventional women from around the world. Lempicka’s own liberal outlook and uninhibited, personally fulfilling lifestyle became part of her legend, enhancing and sustaining her reputation as the leading female artist of the day—au courant in many respects. She and her husband Tadeusz Lempicki each pursued extra-marital affairs, Tamara with partners of both sexes; her relationship with Perrot, another married woman, began in 1922 and lasted roughly a decade. “It was a reckless, adventuresome, exhilarating time for her,” Lempicka’s daughter Kizette recalled. “Her art and the world that went with it had become life for her” (op. cit., 1987, p. 41).
The identities of the two women who posed for Les jeunes filles are today unknown—Lempicka was an inveterate party-goer and did not hesitate to solicit those who caught her eye to pose. The juxtaposition of a blonde and a redhead, though, surely held personal significance: the artist herself had golden tresses that she styled in sleek waves like Greta Garbo, while Ira Perrot had darker, auburn-tinged hair. Here, Lempicka rendered the models as smoothly polished, classically idealized types. Both have heavy lids, ruby-stained lips, and glossy ringlets, shared physical traits that underscore the intimacy of their union. The blonde model slips into blissful torpor, her eyes nearly shut, while her companion catches the artist’s gaze, acknowledging her presence and, perhaps, her desire. 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, emblematic of the purposeful self-confidence and personal empowerment to which her worldly clientele aspired.
In 1932, Lempicka exhibited Les jeunes filles at the Galerie Fauvety in Paris, on the fashionable rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in a group show that also featured work by Picasso, Foujita, Kisling, and Marie Laurencin. Lempicka sold the painting in the same year to Carlo Grassi, a well-heeled Italian businessman and friend of the Futurist artist Giacomo Balla. After Grassi’s death in 1950, his widow donated his extensive holdings of Egyptian antiquities to the Vatican Museums and much of his modern painting collection to the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Milan. The work was most recently featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue for Tamara de Lempicka: Reina del art déco at the Palacio de Gaviria, Madrid, 2018.