Tamara De Lempicka: Artist to the stars

Known as the "baroness with a brush" among the Hollywood glitterati whose portraits she loved to paint, she looked like a movie star and thrived among her set of frothy, haute-bourgeoise socialites.

But the Polish-born painter also had a subversive side that was often eclipsed by her glamour and her popular art-deco style. Since a reappraisal of her work in the 1970s, shortly before her death in 1980, she has been credited with pushing the boundaries of gender and sexuality and pioneering the image of the independent woman. She founded her own brand of "soft cubism", took on a male pseudonym to be taken seriously in Europe's salons and shocked the bourgeoisie with her visions of oozing female sexuality and "masculinised" women.

Yet for all that, she was, and still is, best known as the consummate Hollywood painter of her time. She is collected by Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand and Madonna, whose music videos have featured her works. Last week, the perfumier Wolfgang Joop announced a sale of 10 major works from De Lempicka's most important period, at Sotheby's in New York next month, for an estimated total of more than $12m (£8m). Selected paintings will be on view in London from 22 to 25 April ahead of the sale.

In Hollywood circles, Joop's collection is among the most coveted. He has lent works from it for retrospectives around the world including in Milan, Tokyo and at London's Royal Academy in 2004, and has fielded calls for decades by those who have sought to buy it. For Sotheby's, the sale is unprecedented.

Simon Shaw, head of department for Impressionist and Modern art at Sotheby's, New York describes the artist as an iconoclast, blending high art with low, taking her influences from celebrity culture and combining it with the French avant-garde and Cubism.

"She's not a one-dimensional artist. She had progressive, sexually liberated ideas. She was a female artist very much living in a man's world, but she somehow managed to create a reputation and market for her work," he said.

Among the works on sale is Portrait de la Duchesse de la Salle from 1925 which, while appearing ultra-stylised and easy on the eye, celebrates the strength and power of the modern woman. The portrait makes reference to Cubism, with its geometric cityscape backdrop, but also pushes the limits of "respectable" society portraiture. The sitter is the Greek-born Marika, Duchess de la Salle de Rochemaure, who earned her title by marriage in 1905, ultimately divorcing her husband and retaining a handsome alimony. Lempicka captured the Duchesse at the height of her powers, dressed in riding attire and striking a swaggering pose on a red carpet.

Portrait de Marjorie Ferry, meanwhile, exemplifies the sexy aesthetic that defines De Lempicka's art. The model was an English-born cabaret singer living in Paris, whose financier husband commissioned the portrait at the beginning of the Great Depression. De Lempicka transformed Ferry into a modern-day goddess posing in front of a Doric column.

Lempicka's Portrait of Mademoiselle Poum Rachou from 1933 is one of her most recognisably Cubist-inspired compositions, while Arlette Boucard aux Arums, features a portrait of the daughter of Pierre Boucard, a renowned physician and one of the artist's most important patrons. She used a bouquet of arum lilies in the work to suggest Arlette's passage from innocence to the worldliness of womanhood. Like Georgia O'Keefe's metaphorical flower paintings of the same era, Lempicka also used flowers as a symbol of the blossoming sexuality of the femme fatale.

De Lempicka spent her life creating a glamorous international persona. She went to Paris after fleeing Russia in 1918 and began exhibiting her work in the city's salons in 1922. By the 1930s, she was painting the most celebrated socialites of her day, then later Hollywood glitterati, visiting the likes of Tyrone Power, Walter Pidgeon and George Sanders in their studios and cultivating a "Garboesque manner".

Her image-making paid off. She was in high demand by the 1940s and commanded huge prices for her portraiture, which made even her unknown female models resemble film stars. Despite her obsession with the glitz and glamour of her age, she also depicted a new freedom that she exercised in her own life. De Lempicka did little to shield herself from notoriety. She married twice but had great passions for female Parisian singers and writers and lived openly as a bisexual.

She also criticised the male artists of her day: the work of Pablo Picasso, a one-time friend and contemporary, embodied "the novelty of destruction", she said, and she dismissed many of the Impressionists as drawing badly and using "dirty" colours.

In 1929, she created Auto-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) for the cover of the German fashion magazine Die Dame, which became the blueprint image of a modern, independent woman.

In the portrait, her hands were gloved, her head was helmeted and she appeared utterly remote. As the magazine said in later years, De Lempicka's portrait was "a cold and disturbing beauty [through which] pierces a formidable being. This woman is free!"

The Sotheby's sale in New York takes place on 5 and 6 May

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