Lives of the Artists XXIII

The Polish-Russian artist Tamara de Łempicka (1898-1980) was a noted Art Deco painter, insatiable lover and woman about town. There are several stories about her life, wildness, celebrity and creativity, and here is one.

In pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg, she and her husband were among the glitterati, wealthy and popular with the nobility as well as the multicultural expatriate community. She remained utterly unobservant of the changing times in the country as the corrupt Romanov dynasty crumbled. When the Bolsheviks took over, her property was immediately targeted for confiscation; despite warnings from her more astute relatives, she expected to continue life as before. Indeed, when the commissars raided her house to requisition it, they came upon her and her husband Tadeusz making love on the floor; she had to quickly grab a bed sheet to cover herself. Soon her life was ruined and poverty stared the family in the face. Tadeusz, till then the dominant in the partnership, fell to pieces, and she had to scramble to save everyone.

Unfortunately, the foreign ambassadors who had once been happy to partake of her hospitality now refused to grant her family emigrant visas – all, except the Swedish consul, who humiliated her, making her sit and eat with him as he dined grandly and describe the details of her case, and making it clear that he’d expect more than just gratitude for squirrelling her out of Russia.

They took the slow train to Finland, following which she had to spend a night at a border hotel with the consul in final repayment. It took months before Tadeusz could join her. Months later still, penniless in Paris, Tadeusz, in his humiliation, drank heavily and took to beating her. It was only her own resources of fortitude and ambition that kept food on the table, as she began to train in architecture and establish herself as the breadwinner of the family.

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