Written by: Eleanor Penn Varley
This article will aim to frame the Portrait of Arlette Boucard (1928) (Figure 1), by the Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka, through a Feminist lens. This essay will identify Venus of Urbino (Titian, 1538) (Figure 2) as a major influence on Lempicka’s composition. I will argue that Lempicka has reclaimed the Male Gaze by depicting Arlette as an autonomous, modern woman, who seduces the viewer of her own volition. Feminism is a complicated political movement however, within a specific art history discipline, the main focus of feminist scholarship is an aspiration to reshape the historical canon to include women artists. Some of my arguments will also refer to aspects of Queer Theory, however this is a multi-faceted approach, and I will be unable to fully expand upon these points in the context of this painting.
Tamara de Lempicka was born in Russia, to an affluent family, but fled to Paris in 1918. In the 1900s, Paris had become a haven for lesbian and bisexual creatives with one area (the Left Bank of the Seine) rising up as a separate subculture: ‘The Queer City’. Chisholm describes this cultural hub as a safe space which placed queer ‘experience and exchange at the centre and margins of urbanisation’. Upon arriving in Paris, Lempicka choose to settle within this marginalised, bisexual sphere, surpassing the physical and conceptual boundaries of the city. Paris, at the start of the C20, was heavily influenced by Charles Baudelaire’s definition of Modernity and his fictional character (The Flaneur). The Flaneur was a bourgeois man who inhabited the margins of a modern city, observing it and those who lived within its boundaries. I believe Lempicka was a ‘flâneuse’: a non-existent, female version of the Flaneur who reclaims the city though a woman’s gaze. Lempicka provides her sitters with a sexual and societal freedom, from which contemporary women had been barred.
Her study of the Renaissance heavily influenced her oeuvre, something she acknowledged when discussing the Italian Old Masters:
I discovered Italy when my grandmother took me away from Poland to 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 to the Renaissance.
When reading her works it is important to recognise them in relation to this study and her tendency to lift compositional forms from other artists. I will argue that she has reclaimed Titian’s Venus of Urbino from the voyeuristic, male gaze; reframing Venus through a contemporary depiction of Arlette Boucard: a modern, powerful woman, in control of her own space and sexuality.
Portrait of Arlette Boucard (1928) is an oil on canvas portrait depicting the daughter of a wealthy patron (the physician Pierre Boucard). Arlette lays, fully dressed, upon a chaise lounge, her figural posture drawing direct parallels with Venus of Urbino (Titain, 1538). Lempicka modernises Arlette through the radical framework of her own sexual and bodily ownership. Arlette actively stares at the viewer, seductively inviting them into her private space. Her clothed body takes up a large proportion of the canvas, flowing over the boundaries of the frame, breaking it up and concealing what Arlette wants to remain unseen. This foreshortening of Arlette’s figure also has the effect of creating a sense of closeness with the viewer: she offers herself up in a tactile, controlled manner. As a bisexual woman, Lempicka transferred some of her own sexual desires into her compositions, depicting women with a sense of carnality, brutally laying bare her sitters’ most sexual desires. Her canvases dripped with a carnal presence, something which Birnbaum argues is a theme within Lempicka’s oeuvre. Birnbaum states that she framed her models’ bodies in a way that makes the viewer feel like they are ‘in the process of moving directly on top of [their] ample bod[ies]...in a sexually charged manner’.
In combination with how Lempicka represents Arlette as actively present within the image, this carnality shows that she is in control of her own sexual body. This is brought to the viewers’ attention when this painting is contrasted with Titian’s Venus of Urbino as Venus is a passive, bodily form, submissive to the gaze of those who desire her.
Lempicka’s teacher, Lhote, championed the formal techniques of Renaissance artists: one example of such a technique is the linea serpentina, which, according to C16 Italian theorists, was the superior expression of beauty. Lempicka emphasises Arlette’s twisting bodily form by portraying her seductively tracing her hand up her leg. This contrasts with Titian’s depiction of Venus, whose limp hand is draped across her body, as though it could be lifted away by the gaze of a viewer. In C16 Italy, an observer would male. He would have hosted private soirées in rooms filled with depictions of nude women with other voyeuristic men, praising one another for their ability to recognise ‘beautiful’ female forms, indicating their virility. The juxtaposition of the purposeful nature of Arlette’s hand in contrast with the subordinative quality of Venus’s, identifies Arlette as in control of her own body and its associated access: she cuts off the controlling male gaze.
Lempicka was comfortable with taking inspiration and lifting compositional structures from other artists and it was common in her works. One artist with whom she took great influence was Ingres whose painting, The Turkish Bath (1862), Lempicka studied when completing Beautiful Rafaela (1927). When referencing the works of previous artists, not only is she satisfying her own erotic urges but also that of her public: the educated, bourgeoisie who had disposable incomes and a need to affirm their status. Lempicka was aware this public would draw links between her works and that of the Academic painters, raising her canvases in line with their values and thus deeming them worthy of commission. Art Deco painters found themselves replicating the beautiful forms and flat, curved surfaces of the Renaissance in an attempt to set off sensuous curves found in figural forms with the harsh, angular constructions of modernity which their clientele, the new bourgeoisie, owned. These signifiers of modernity served to flatter those who commissioned Lempicka, showing off what they owned. In Portrait of Arlette Boucard (1928), Lempicka included Pierre Boucard’s boat (baptized "Lactéol", after the drug which made his fortune) as a reflection of the ‘dolce vita’ which the upper classes enjoyed in the 1920s. This commercialisation of her works, to please a contemporary audience, allowed Lempicka to become financially independent. When reframing the art historical canon, though a feminist perspective, it is important to recognise the drive behind the production of women artist’s work. Tamara de Lempicka was born into an affluent family but left it all behind to start her new life in Paris; through her talent, self-awareness and marketisation of the female body she made her fortune. She reclaimed the female body from the male artists of the history books, facilitating her sitters' exploration of their sexuality and societal presence.
The major difference between Lempicka’s Portrait of Arlette Boucard (1928) and Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) is that Arlette is dressed whereas Venus is nude. Some may suggest this reduces the sexualised nature of Lempicka’s portrait, however I would argue it heightens it. Arlette’s dress matches the colour of her flushed cheeks, drawing attention to her tussled hair, red lips and seductive gaze which are reminiscent of a post-impassioned moment. Her blue scarf wraps around her, in a linea serpentina of undulating fabric, moving the eye over her body. The way Arlette is depicted as holding herself shows this is a purposeful placement. She consents to the viewer that they can take her, in letting their eye wander down her bodily form to which the silk clings. This is matched in Lempicka’s Renaissance-esque treatment of brushwork; the highly finished surface, like that of Titian’s, emphasises this seductive movement. The folds of her dress mirror the tussled sheets of Titian’s Venus of Urbino composition. The messy sheets and crumpled pillows of Titian’s canvas lead the viewer to feel like she is available, lying bare, for their own use. In the background of Titian’s canvas, a maid can be seen; it has been suggested she is selecting garments to redress Venus. In contrast to Arlette, who has purposefully clothed herself in a stylish, modern outfit, Venus is not in control of the access to her body; she is even prevented from deciding when, and how, to cover it. Lempicka, however, depicts Arlette as provocatively dressed, taking charge of her own sexual access and experiences.
At Venus’ feet a dog is curled up, sleeping. For Titian’s contemporary audience, dogs were a widely accepted symbol of fidelity as they used to openly copulate in the streets. Titian was commissioned by Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo II Della Rovere, to paint his wife. He instructed Titian to provide a guide for his wife about the act of intimacy. The Venus-figure has no command over this composition, or the acts to which her marriage has contractually obliged her, becoming a passive object of the male gaze. Lempicka, on the other hand, shows Arlette as an active, dominant participant in a dual exchange of intimacy between her and the viewer.
The main aim of feminist art history is to reframe the dialogue to include women artists, highlighting the struggles they have had to overcome to produce art. It is a political movement, something which Tamara de Lempicka knew and manipulated to her advantage. She took compositions from ‘great’ male artists and reclaimed them through her own erotic fantasies, Portrait of Arlette Boucard (1928) is just one example of this. Within this article, I have drawn compositional links between this canvas and that of Venus of Urbino (Titian, 1538). I have argued that Lempicka knowingly depicted Arlette Boucard as a modern-day Venus. She is shown actively seducing the viewer, unlike the passive Venus, her clothed body dominates the canvas, refusing to be an object for male consumption. Arlette is desirable, like Venus, but controls access to her body in a way Renaissance models were barred from. Lempicka built a life for herself through her art, becoming a financially independent woman through a reclamation her womanhood and sexual experiences. Arguably, this is her best achievement in the face of 1920s misogyny and, that she extended this freedom to her sitters, is something to be celebrated.
Figure 1: de Lempicka, Tamara. “Portrait of Arlette Boucard” Oil on Canvas, 1928. Private Collection.
Figure 2: Titian. “Venus of Urbino.” Oil on Canvas, 1534. Uffizi. Florence.
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