Sexy, bold and ultra-stylized in its presentation, Le rêve (Rafaëla sur fond vert) is a suggestive depiction of a femme fatale in repose. Painted in 1927 while the artist was living in Paris, this sumptuous composition defines the artist's chic and inimitable style. It also played a major role in establishing Lempicka's international career when it was featured at the Carnegie International Exhibition in the United States, prompting one critic to refer to the artist as "a modern Vigée le Brun."
Lempicka was born in Poland and lived in St. Petersburg in her youth. In 1918 she came to Paris and spent the rest of her life cultivating a glamorous international persona. She began exhibiting her work in the Paris salons in 1922, and through her exposure to avant-garde art, she derived a distinct style of painting that was unlike most of her male contemporaries. Impressed by the Cubists and their deconstruction of form, she applied similar techniques in her paintings. Although loosely tied to the geometric aesthetic of Cubism and the proportionality of neo-Classicism, Lempicka's painting, characterized by its razor-sharp draughtsmanship, theatrical lighting and sensual modeling, was unlike that of any artist of her day. Her striking depictions of women, including the tantalizing Le rêve (Rafaëla sur fond vert) and La Dormeuse (fig. 1), have come to personify the age of Art Deco.
Although this picture was titled The Dream when it was first exhibited in the United States in 1929, Lempicka's own photo-archives referred to the picture as Le rêve (Rafaëla sur fond vert). Rafaëla, the model, was a young woman whom the artist encountered in the Bois de Boulogne, a locale notoriously frequented by prostitutes. Years later, Lempicka would recall how she boldly propositioned this young seductress, who would become a dominant presence in her art of the late 1920s: "Suddenly I became 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. What is so extraordinary that they are doing this? I walk very quickly until I pass her, then I turn around and come back down the path in the opposite direction 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. Would you do this?' She says 'Yes. Why not?' And I say 'Yes come. My car is here.' 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 the sofa here.' She lay. Every position was art – perfection and I started to paint her, and I painted her for over a year" (quoted in ibid.). In his monograph on the artist, Patrick Bade refers to Lempicka's depictions of Rafaëla as "amongst the most potently erotic works of de Lempicka in which the desire of the artist for the soft and curvaceous body of the model is palpable" (P. Bade, op. cit., p. 59). Indeed, Lempicka's own bisexuality and her attraction to her models was an essential component in creating her pictures.
The subject of the sleeping or recumbent nude was filled with erotic potential, as Picasso would readily acknowledge in his sumptuous portraits of Marie-Thérèse in 1932. Lempicka's version, which preceded these pictures by nearly half a decade, is perhaps one of the most intimate and unabashedly sensual renderings of this theme. In Le rêve (Rafaëla sur fond vert) every curve of the figure's flesh is rendered with imperceptible brushstrokes. Her skin appears to be incandescent as if she is bathed in silver moonlight, and her hair glows with a metallic sheen. Lempicka was receptive to the influence of her colleagues in Weimar Germany, and she readily incorporated the hyper-realism of the Neue Sachlichkeit into her work. But it was her love of the precision and classicism of the Italian Renaissance that had the most profound impact on her compositions. Lempicka frequently acknowledged her indebtedness to the Italian Old Masters and how their style profoundly impacted her art: "I discovered Italy when I was a youngster and my grandmother took me away from the cold climate of Poland, where I was born and lived, to take me to the sunny cities of Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice and Milan. It was under her attentive guidance that my eyes took in the treasures of the Italian old masters, from the Quattrocento, the Renaissance" (quoted in Alain Blondel, op. cit., p. 22).
While much has been written about Lempicka's reverence for the old masters, equally important to her as an artist were the aesthetic forces of her era, the most influential of which was the American film industry. Lempicka was enthralled with the mystique of Hollywood, eventually moving there in the 1940s with her second husband, Baron Kuffner. She invited film crews to her studio in Paris, where she staged grand entrances and posed for pictures with all the theatricality and panache of a silent film star. One oft-repeated anecdote is that Lempicka was thrilled to be mistaken once for the film actress Greta Garbo. The artist was enamoured by this type of modern glamour, and it is no accident that the models in her portraits often resemble film icons from the early days of Hollywood. This platinum bombshell, depicted in the nude and with brightly coloured lips and nails, calls to mind the passively seductive poses of such 1920s and 1930s silver-screen legends as Louise Brooks (fig. 3).
As Patrick Bade explained in his monograph on the artist, "There is no doubt that de Lempicka herself was profoundly influenced by the burgeoning art form of the cinema. In the 1920s as she formed her style, the great Hollywood studios of M.G.M., Paramount, Columbia, Universal and R.K.O. began what has been termed the gold age of Hollywood and their domination of world entertainment. The French and German film industries also enjoyed a golden age of creativity, turning out many of the twentieth century's finest films in these years. The ubiquity of movies began to influence the way people looked and behaved. De Lempicka's female subjects with their heavy makeup, perfectly coiffed hair and their theatrical poses and facial expressions full of artificial pathos could have stepped out of the silver screen" (P. Bade, Tamara de Lempicka, New York, 2006, p. 92).
Oil on canvas
Tamara de Lempicka
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute & St. Louis, Forrest Park, Art Museum,
28th International Exhibition of Paintings, 1929-30, no. 212
32 by 23 5/8 in. 81.3 by 58.5 cm
Tamara de Lempicka, noted photo-albums, Lempicka Archives, Houston, no. 51
Arsène Alexandre, "Tamara de Lempicka," La Renaissance de l'art français et des Industries de luxe, Paris, July 1929, illustrated p. 333
Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph, October 20, 1929, illustrated
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 27, 1929, illustrated
"The Artist's Daughter," Pittsburgh Sun - Telegraph, November 13, 1929
St. Louis Globe Democrat, March 9, 1930, illustrated
"Women gain notice in Carnegie exhibit," The Post Dispatch, March 16, 1930
Marc Vaux, Fonds Lempicka, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1972, no. 51
G. Bazin & H. Itsuki, Tamara de Lempicka. The Myth of the Portrait, Tokyo, 1980, no. 40
E. Thormann, Tamara de Lempicka, Kunstkritik und Künstlerinnen in Paris, Berlin, no. 38
Gioa Mori, Tamara de Lempicka, Parigi, 1920-1928, Florence, 1994, illustrated p. 140
Alain Blondel, Lempicka, Catalogue raisonné, 1921-1979, Lausanne, 1999, B.85, illustrated in color p. 163
S. Penck, Tamara de Lempicka, Munich, Berlin, London & New York, 2004, illustrated p. 49
Patrick Bade, Lempicka, New York, 2006, illustrated p. 63
Alain Blondel, Tamara de Lempicka (exhibition catalogue), Museo de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 2009, illustrated p. 56
Alain Blondel & E. Breon, Tamara de Lempicka (exhibition catalogue), Tokyo, 2010, illustrated p. 17
Galerie du Luxembourg, Paris (acquired from the artist circa 1972)
Private Collection, San Francisco (1972)
Barry Friedman Ltd., New York (1984)
Antonia Schulman, New York (1985)
Duhamel Fine Art, Paris
Private Collection, Monaco