Although she had been painting for five years and had exhibited in the Salon d'Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, Lempicka was not yet affiliated with a gallery in Paris. The exhibition of Lempicka's paintings in 1925 at the Bottega di Poesia, a gallery in Milan directed by Count Emmanuele di Castelbarco, marked the beginning of her public career. She returned to Italy the following year to execute the portrait commissions that Castelbarco had helped to procure, staying for a time with the celebrated writer Gabriele d'Annunzio, although his amorous advances caused Lempicka to leave before his portrait was completed.
Returning to Paris in 1926 she began to work intensively, and in 1927 she met the physician Pierre Boucard, who commissioned from the artist portraits of himself, his wife and daughter. During this time she painted an important series of nudes (Blondel, nos. B.84-B.88); the present work was shown at the 1928 Salon de Tuileries and was very likely painted the previous year. It shares horizontal format of La tunique rose (Blondel, no. B.84) and the two versions showing a reclining model, La belle Rafaëla en vert and La belle Rafaëla (Blondel nos. B.86 and B.87). Indeed, with her short black hair, full red lips and voluptuous figure, it is very likely that the model in the present painting is also Rafaëla.
Lempicka often took her morning exercise in the Bois de Boulogne, where, thinking of potential subjects, she would observe the faces and bodies of passersby.
"Suddenly I become aware of a woman walking some distance in front of me. As she walks, everyone coming in the opposite direction stops and looks at her. They turn their heads as she passes by. I am curious... Then I see why everyone stops. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen--huge black eyes, beautiful sensuous mouth, beautiful body. I stop her and say to her, Mademoiselle, I'm a painter, and I would like you to pose for me...I took her home in my car, we had lunch, and after lunch, in my studio, I said, 'Undress, I want to paint you.' She undressed without any shame. I said, 'Lay down on this sofa here.' She lay. Every position was art--perfection, and I started to paint her, and I painted her for over a year" (The artist, quoted in Baroness K. de Lempicka-Foxhall and C. Phillips, Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka, New York, 1987, p. 80).
Laura Claridge, in her 1999 biography Tamara: A Life of Deco and Decadence, recounts the story somewhat differently: Rafaëla agrees to pose and comes the next morning for her first session. During each hour of a day's session Lempicka allowed Rafaëla a fifteen-minute break, during which the young woman talked about her life. Lempicka sifted through her stories and detected more than a few fictions; "the elliptical story fragments that Tamara later retold imply that she [Rafaëla] was a prostitute" (L. Claridge, op. cit., p. 151).
The artist creates an extraordinary tension between the narcissistic self-absorption of her model, who seems possessed by an erotic daydream, and the cool, polished surface of her flesh, painted using only a few earth tones, black and white. Lempicka derived her sense of volume from her studies with André Lhote and the example of Picasso's neo-classical nudes, although even the latter never crossed over into Lempicka's realm of ripely erotic sensuality. The present painting also hints at sexual reverie, and although Rafaëla's figure is even more voluptuous, the placement of the scarlet drapery makes her pose seem rather more demure. The addition of the book adds an element of melancholy (as Blondel points out), and, it may be said, no small amount of ennui. It is easy to picture Rafaëla as a young woman typical of the new modernity of outlook during the flapper era; obsessed with romance and sexuality, her life is a mixture of her own aggressive appetites and a surrender to daydreams and expectations taken from literary fiction.