During the early 1930s Tamara de Lempicka was at the height of her fame as a painter, and, at the same time, she was widely celebrated as a glamorous hostess and party-goer (fig. 1). The professional and social aspects of her life were inextricably intertwined; one was indispensable to the success of the other, and together enabled her to attain her own independent life-style, which was still a relatively rare achievement for a woman at that time. All of these qualities enhanced her reputation as being the leading female artist of her day. Lempicka had in fact become one of the most the most sought-after portraitists among wealthy Europeans and Americans. She could accept or refuse commissions as she saw fit. The international range of her clientele may have been even more extensive than that of Kees van Dongen, who, working in a very different style, was perhaps her chief rival for European commissions, but he had fewer American connections.
Lempicka had been working since the late 1920s in her fully realized signature style, which informs every aspect of this striking Portrait de Madame M. Combining elements drawn from French Cubism, Purism and Neo-Classicism, her own study of Italian Mannerist masters, and showing her awareness of contemporary realist trends in Germany, such as seen in the paintings of Christian Schad, Lempicka forged her own boldly cosmopolitan classical figure style. She drew timely and fashionable inspiration from Ingres (fig. 2), whose example had also served as the springboard for Picasso's Neo-classicism. She developed the perfect pictorial manner to describe the liberated assertiveness and unrestrained extravagance of the Parisian post-war années folles, the Americans' Jazz Age. Her paintings were aggressively modern-looking, yet she always idealized her subjects, in marked contrast to the German realist and new objectivist painters. The appeal of her work to the new social elite of her day was due in large part to its proud and glowing sensuality; her cool and urbane vision of physical beauty was emblematic of purposeful self-confidence, personal empowerment and worldly success, and mirrored the aspirations of this well-heeled and influential class.
The growing number of women who were entering the arts following the First World War attracted a good deal of attention, and Lempicka proudly believed that she stood out among them. Few would disagree. 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, op. cit., p. 53).
Lempicka made her first trip to America in the fall of 1929, at the behest of the young heir-to-millions Rufus T. Bush, who had commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of his newlywed wife Joan (fig. 3). Nine days after Lempicka set foot in New York, the stock market crashed, and unfortunately after she had deposited a substantial sum in a bank which promptly failed. The Bush portrait and other commissions she attracted while in New York served to cover her losses; she was, as usual, through her considerable talent and resources as a business-person, adept in landing on her feet in situations that might have set back or even wiped out other artists. She returned to Paris in early 1930, excited about her visit to New York and unfazed by the signs of a growing world-wide economic crisis that was already having an impact in the French capital. Wealthy American buyers had buoyed up the Parisian art market, and now that their financial lifeline back to the States had been severed, they began to head home. Artists were having an increasingly difficult time; only Picasso, the most famous of them all, whose sizable fortune was in the safekeeping of a judicious banker, was able to easily weather the storm.
With an eye to an uncertain future, Lempicka worked even harder, and used her social connections, as well her appeal as a beautiful and extremely desirable divorcee, to eke out further commissions. She had already made her first million by the age of 28, so she would boast, and now in her mid-thirties she was confidant that she could provide as sole breadwinner for her daughter and mother, and keep up her expensive Art Deco residence and studio at 7, rue Méchain. She displayed paintings at gatherings in her home, and had her first solo show at the Galerie Colette Weil in May, 1930. Critics concurred that she was at the peak of her form. One reviewer wrote:
"In her paintings everything is caressed with love and a meticulous brush. At the same time she shows a skillful, confident conception and a taste for pure line and simple shapes. Her drawing is clear and sharp; her painting smooth with extreme skill and mastering of craft. Her paintings remind us of the classics in museums but with infinitely more seduction and sensitivity. This is not really realistic painting: she could be called realistic if the term were enlarged. Her art is not cold despite its precision. Her portraits are alive and even hallucinatory" (quoted in L. Claridge, Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence, New York, 1999, pp. 174-175).
"By all accounts, 1932 was an exceptional year for her career," Lempicka's biographer 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" (ibid., pp. 184, 185-186). Early in that year she exhibited in an all women's show at the newly transformed Musée du Jeu de Paume.
Lempicka completed the Portrait de Madame M. and delivered it to her client, André Morillot, in 1931-1932. Morillot was a lawyer at the Cour de Cassation and Conseil d'Etat, high juridical and legal institutions in the French government. He had commissioned this portrait of his wife Marie-Thérèse, née Morand, as a gift to her following their marriage in 1929. Lempicka rated this picture highly and exhibited it in her studio and at the Salon des Tuileries during 1932. The artist was unstinting in her execution here, and may have even surpassed herself: she rendered the folds in Mme Morillot's dress, and even created decorative floral clusters of drapery in the background, with a newfound relish for baroque effect that recalls Bernini's sculpture of Saint Theresa in Rome. Lempicka had in fact recently painted her own version of the saint's face (Blondel, no. B.140). She took care in the present portrait to weigh and balance these ornate embellishments within the overall composition, and she used the counterpoint of Mme Morillot's long bare right arm and raised left hand to frame and steady her pose amid the cascades of drapery. In some ways this painting is the cooler blue and white counterpart to the impassioned red and white Portrait d'Ira P[errot], 1930 (Blondel, no. B.143; fig. 4), a woman who was Lempicka's close friend and is reputed to have been the artist's lover for almost a decade, until their relationship ended around this time (see lot ____).
Lempicka's finely detailed treatment of Madame Morillot is perhaps a fitting farewell to this luxuriant pictorial style, and to the fabulous decade that inspired it. Alain Blondel has pointed out that this painting is "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 (op. cit.)." Lempicka, who never lacked for suitors, finally remarried in 1934, having accepted the proposal of Baron Raoul Kuffner, a wealthy Hungarian. Thus freed from financial cares, she could paint as she pleased, and she turned to new subjects, people who were humble in station and whose faces expressed an inward and soulful character. The artist's daughter Kizette recalled a story that her mother had told her, which reflects the changes that were taking place around her during the early 1930s. Lempicka had developed a friendship with King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who had gone into exile when a republic was established in 1931. Lempicka was engaged in painting his portrait, when, as Kizette has related:
"His Majesty invited her one afternoon for a ride in the country. Somewhere outside Paris, they had a flat tire. As the King's chauffeur worked to repair it, several mill hands from a nearby village passed by, and the two stranded motorists struck up a conversation with them. Like all kings, Alfonso imagined that he got along well with 'the people.' He asked them what they did for a living, and one of them explained that the mill had closed, and they at present were out of work. They asked in return what he did. "I am the King of Spain," His Majesty replied, "and I, too, am unemployed" (op. cit., p 108).
(fig. 1) Tamara de Lempicka, circa 1928. Photograph by the Lucien Lorelle Studio, Paris. BARCODE: 24401951
(fig. 2) J.-A.-D. Ingres, Louise de Broglie, Contesse d'Haussonville, 1845. Frick Collection, New York. BARCODE:24401968
(fig. 3) Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait de Mrs. Bush, 1929. Sold, Christie's New York, 4 May 2004, lot 36. BARCODE 24401957
(fig. 4) Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait d'Ira P., 1930. Sold, Christie's New York, 19 November 1998, lot 352. BARCODE: 24401982