Tamara de Lempicka had arrived at her mature signature manner by the end of the 1920s, and her career was at its peak. Combining elements drawn from French Cubism, Purism and Neo-Classicism, as well as her own study of Italian Mannerist masters, and showing her awareness of such contemporary realist trends such as Neue Sachlichkeit in Central Europe, Lempicka synthesized her own boldly cosmopolitan classical-realist style. It was the perfect manner for the liberated assertiveness and opulence of the Parisian post-war années folles, the fabled Jazz Age. Her paintings were aggressively modern-looking, and their appeal to the new social elite of her day was no doubt due in large part to their proud and glowing sensuality, in which physical beauty was emblematic of purposeful self-confidence, personal empowerment and success. The urbane and coolly polished surfaces in her pictures mirrored the social ideals of this well-heeled and influential class, which did not hesitate to pursue its passions, but had the good taste to moderate them through the exercise of accomplished formality, self-discipline and dedicated professionalism.
Lempicka became one of the most sought-after portraitists of her day, rivaling Kees van Dongen, and she could accept or refuse commissions as she saw fit.
The present owners of this portrait recall their mother, Joan Jeffery, whom it depicts, describing how the commission came about. She and her fiancée, Rufus T. Bush, were strolling down a Paris street and saw an extraordinary painting by Lempicka in a gallery window. They entered the gallery and were intent on buying the painting on the spot. Mr. Bush then had the idea of commissioning the artist to paint Miss Jeffery's portrait as a wedding present for his bride-to-be. Lempicka's daughter Kizette (op. cit., pp. 99-101) continues the story. Bush telephoned the artist and announced his intention, Lempicka told him to come right over; she would be soon leaving for a dinner engagement. The young couple arrived fifteen minutes later, and after a brief interview, Lempicka agreed to the commission and stated that she could start very soon. Bush pointed out it could not be done in Paris; his fiancée was due to return to America very shortly. He wanted Lempicka to come to New York and paint her there.
Lempicka signed a contract with Bush on the spot, stating that she would arrive in New York on October 14. She charged her usual rate, but when advised by her dinner partner that evening that living expenses in New York would quickly consume her fee, she wrote to Bush asking to renegotiate the payment terms of the contract. Bush agreed without protest to her new fee, which was four times the amount she had previously signed to.
Joan Jeffery was then 19 years old. She was the granddaughter of Thomas B. Jeffery, an automobile manufacturer whose company in Kenosha, Wisconsin, produced the first Ramblers during the early 1900s. Rufus T. Bush was 21, and had been studying at Oxford; his father was Irving T. Bush, who in 1900 constructed the Bush Terminal railroad yards on the Brooklyn waterfront to service his own 200-acre industrial park. In 1916-1918 Irving T. Bush built the 29-storey Bush Tower at 130 West 42nd Street to house his company offices; it was regarded for more than a decade as a model for smaller midtown skyscrapers.
Lempicka sailed on the liner Paris and arrived on the appointed date. Two Rolls-Royces were waiting at the dock to take the artist and her luggage to the elegant Hotel Savoy. Lempicka wanted to begin work right away, but the Bushes, now married, told her the first order of business was for her to accompany them to the dressmaker Hattie Carnegie, to order the clothes that Mrs. Bush would wear for her portrait. Mrs. Bush closely followed the artist's suggestions, and chose a tailored, full-length red evening coat, with a black skirt hemmed fashionably at the knee.
In preparation for her commission, Lempicka made at least two drawings of Mrs. Bush (Blondel, nos. A. 127 and 129). The artist was deeply impressed by the sleek and towering shapes of Manhattan's skyscrapers, which represented for her the ultimate in modernity. Lempicka made several studies of midtown buildings (fig. 1); the last became the source for the background in the present painting. She continued to use skyscrapers as backdrops for portraits she later painted in Europe.
Lempicka soon ran into an unanticipated difficulty as she began to paint Mrs. Bush. Her sitter would receive visitors as she posed, and their conversation and champagne-sipping distracted the painter. Lempicka even threatened to return to Paris. Kizette, drawing on letters her mother sent to her from New York, recounted: "But they looked at her so contritely that she couldn't resist them, and she said, 'I will try the American way.' Every day now, she [the artist] wrote, people came, and they all sat around and drank and talked while she painted away. When the painting was done, she wrote that she thought it one of her best portraits" (ibid.).
The Bushes were married for only a few years, and when they were divorced, Mrs. Bush placed her portrait in storage, together with other belongings, before moving to Greece, where she later met her second husband. The portrait remained hidden away for almost sixty years, when her daughter read about it in Kizette's book and then located it in storage. Blondel has called this portrait a "masterpiece," and remarked: "This anecdote confirms that, undoubtedly, Lempicka's best works were destined to spend a certain lapse of time sheltered from light!" (op. cit., p. 52) Previously unexhibited and in its near pristine state, Lempicka's Portrait de Mrs. Bush is offered here by the sitter's heirs.
(fig. 1) Tamara de Lempicka, Skyscrapers, circa 1929. Private collection. ***BARCODE 20730116***