Lempicka began to publicly exhibit her paintings in the Salon d'Automne and Salon des Tuileries in 1922. She took advantage of the growing interest in women who were entering the arts following the First World War, and indeed, she strongly believed that she stood out among them. She later wrote, "I was the first woman who did clear painting--and that was the success of my painting. 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, Passion by Design: the Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka, New York, 1987, p. 53).
Her teachers had been Maurice Denis, the Nabi painter who turned to the Italian quattrocento for inspiration in the early years of the 20th century, and André Lhote, the cubist who followed the "call to order" following the First World War and worked within the ethos of the new classicism. Lempicka learned from Denis the value of precise draftsmanship and like him acquired an affinity for the Italian primitives, whose work she studied during a student trip to Italy in 1920, and an extended stay there in 1925. She took from Lhote the principle of the "plastic metaphor," in which the shapes and volumes of the human form were based on abstract, geometric forms. Lhote had admired this idealized approach in the work of Ingres, and Lempicka was likewise drawn to this tendency, which expressed the clarity of form she sought in her work.
As Alain Blondel has noted, the Portrait de la Duchesse de Valmy was "the first commission that Lempicka--who was 26 at the time--brought to a successful conclusion" (op. cit., p. 496). In this painting she has closely adhered to Lhote's "plastic metaphor," simplifying the forms of the figure into shaded curvilinear volumes, while limiting the inclusion of detail to the sitter's facial features and the string of pearls around her neck--the latter serving as a relatively small but nonetheless important visual accent in the composition. Lempicka has carried over this generalized volumetric treatment into the interior setting which serves as backdrop. The close cropping of the figure within the frame reinforces the compact unity of her design. Lempicka remarked, "People had thought I made a mistake, I had chopped off a piece of their heads. But I wanted it to look like the people ran in and out, leading their busy lives" (quoted in L. Claridge, Tamara Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence, New York, 1999, p. 82).
During her stay in Rome during 1925, Lempicka traveled to Milan to meet with Count Emmanuele de Castelbarco, a wealthy patron of the arts who had opened a new gallery, the Bottega di Poesia. She brought a letter of introduction from a mutual friend, but the count agreed to see her, he later admitted, "only because the doorman told him she was young, blond and good-looking" (quoted in K. de Foxhall-Lempicka, op. cit., p. 57). Looking through her portfolio of photographs, he immediately set a date in November for an exhibition of her paintings. This was Lempicka's first solo show (fig. 1); Portrait de la Duchesse de V., as it was titled in the catalogue, was among the 51 paintings placed on view. The exhibition was a success, and the connections she made through Castelbarco, including the Marquis Sommi (see lot 30) and the famous decadent poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, led to further commissions and a return to Italy the following year. The French art historian Jacques Reboud wrote in his introduction to the catalogue: "You must continue efforts along this line. In all of Europe [you] will be very famous" (quoted in L. Claridge, op. cit., pp. 124-125).
(fig. 1) Installation photograph of Lempicka's 1925 exhibition at the Bottega di Poesia, Milan. BARCODE 27237489