Intimate, beautiful, and complicated — the female relationships captured in Tamara de Lempicka’s Fillette en rose and Frida Kahlo’s Portrait of Cristina, My Sister

Christie's specialists Marysol Nieves and Imogen Kerr discuss two portraits from the Jerry Moss collection, stating each painting reads like it's ‘set to the lyrics of a love song’

kahlo and lempicka

It is 1928. Tamara de Lempicka is adding the final touches to Fillette en rose in Paris. Frida Kahlo, miles away in Mexico City, is painting Portrait of Cristina, My Sister. From their separate milieux, these two trailblazing artists are both capturing the most significant female relationships of their lives, at their most intimate moments, at the same time.

Almost a century later, these portraits — both coming from the collection of Jerry Moss — will be offered at the same time in the 20th Century Evening Sale on 9 November at Christie’s in New York.

In the case of Tamara de Lempicka and her daughter, Kizette, portraiture was an act of intimacy and an important function of their relationship. Sitting for her portrait was one of the ways that Kizette could get closer to her mother, who was famously absorbed in her work. Despite the intimacy of the painting, their relationship beyond the canvas was at times complicated.

lempicka

Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), Fillette en rose, c. 1928-1930. Oil on canvas. 45? x 28? in (115.9 x 72.8 cm). Sold for $14,785,000 in 20th Century Evening Sale on 9 November 2023 at Christie's New York

As Kizette put it, ‘She had her life and I had mine. I thought that was how everyone lived. Every time she sold a painting and got some money, we would take a trip. She was such a dynamic person, and we were very close.’ She dutifully looked after her mother during her last days, and later said, ‘I’ve gone through hell and high water, Mama wasn’t easy to live with at the end.’

Kahlo and her sister Cristina were also very close. On 17 September 1925, Kahlo had a near-fatal accident that rendered her bed-bound for almost a year, and it was Cristina who looked after her throughout her convalescence. Portrait of Cristina, My Sister was painted towards the end of this period, when she was beginning to enter the outside world again, and the bond between the sisters was at its most solid.

Despite this intimacy, their relationship would soon be complicated. In 1935, Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera would have an affair with Cristina. The artist would forgive her sister’s betrayal, and go on to be nursed by her on her deathbed.

Both paintings are coming from the collection of Jerry Moss, co-founder of A&M Records. As Imogen Kerr, co-head of the 20th Century Evening Sale and Christie’s specialist in Impressionist and Modern Art says, ‘The intimate narratives on display in each painting read like they’re set to the lyrics of a love song or poem’.

Kerr adds, ‘Both artists insisted upon capturing their sitter’s essence, their mannerisms, movements — even chasing down their thoughts — far beyond a simple likeness. I read this as a testament to the character of Jerry Moss’s collecting taste: powerful, challenging and beautiful, he collected works that function on a psychological level, that strike beyond the surface.’

kahlo

Frida Kahlo (1907-19), Portrait of Cristina, My Sister, 1928. Oil on panel. 31? x 23¾ in (79.8 x 60.3 cm). Sold for $8,230,000 in 20th Century Evening Sale on 9 November 2023 at Christie's New York

An interesting parallel to note between the two paintings is how they both capture the subjects on the cusp of womanhood. At the time of painting Portrait of Cristina, My Sister, Cristina was 20 years old — within a year she had married and become a mother.

Marysol Nieves, Christie’s specialist in Latin American art, explains how the idea of her being at this threshold is accentuated: ‘Cristina’s Cristina’s stylish white dress, with its deep V-neck, accentuates her curves and youthful body. It emphasises her femininity and the transitioning into womanhood,’ while the color of the dress foreshadows her impending nuptials and the notion of ‘‘purity’’ associated with her youth and innocence.

Scholars like Hayden Herrera and Luis-Martín Lozano have drawn on this further, noting parallels between Cristina and an allegorical ‘new Eve’. They argue that the tree branches in the foreground are a reference to the tree of knowledge and the garden of Eden, and in that sense the painting could be understood as an unconscious foreshadowing of the later Temptation, or ‘Fall’, with Kahlo's husband. This is a woman at the threshold of growing up, out of naivete and into the sins of the real world, while the portrait itself signals Kahlo’s own evolution and maturation as an artist.

The intimate narratives on display in each painting read like they’re set to the lyrics of a love song
Imogen Kerr

In Lempicka’s portrait, Kizette also seems to be captured at the transition point between girlhood and adulthood. She is dressed formally, in a pristine white dress that somewhat parallels Cristina’s, but one shoe has fallen off, and she doesn’t bother to replace it. She comes across as lackadaisical and playful — studying yet distracted. She is still in a teenager’s body and dress but simultaneously resembles her mother. The real world is far off, dark and angular in the background, but it is looming.

Just as these portraits convey young women blossoming into the next phases of their lives, they demonstrate the artists transitioning into their mature styles, and blossoming into the great artists that they would become.

Portrait of Cristina, My Sister is where Kahlo transitions her style into a more modernist approach. She had begun painting portraits in 1926 — her first self-portrait, Self Portrait in a velvet dress, has a marked Mannerist style, recalling the portraits of Cinquecento and the work of Agnolo Bronzino. By the time of this portrait of Cristina in 1928, the influence of Cinquecento can still be felt in the background, the grapefruit leaves, and the vines. But Kahlo is transitioning her style to a more pared-down Modernist approach, rooted in the German artists who coalesced around the New Objectivity movement and who embraced a more realistic, less stylised approach to painting.

kahlo and lempicka

Portraits of Frida Kahlo and Tamara de Lempicka. Photographs by Bettmann / Contributor

Similarly, Fillette en rose represents a turning point in Lempicka’s practice. As Kerr puts it, ‘this painting represents her arriving at her artistic identity’. Characteristically hard-edged, dynamic, sleek, stylised, glamorous, with a high level of finish represent her visionary modernist revamp of the old masters whose clean lines she so revered — ‘it is an iconic representation of her inimitable style.’

Both of these portraits also present a remarkable collecting opportunity. Nieves explains, ‘Kahlo painted fewer than 150 easel paintings in her lifetime, so any time a work of this caliber comes to the market, it is a very rare moment. Of the small number of works that Kahlo did paint, the vast majority are either in museum collections or they are in Mexico and cannot be permanently exported, so that further reduces the inventory of works available. It is extremely rare for one to come to market, and her portraits are the most valuable because they are her signature contribution to the history of 20th century art.’

Portraits of Kizette are also rare — only six of them exist. As Kerr explains, ‘This painting is believed to have been created as a second example for Lempicka’s personal collection, which speaks to the high value she placed upon it. She sold the initial version — which was widely commended — to the Musée d'arts de Nantes (where it remains today), and then repainted. She must have considered it a very successful work, one she cherished.’

These portraits convey the nuances of complex and intimate female relationships, and just as they capture the fleeting transition from girlhood to womanhood, they mark important transition points in the artists’ careers. Their sale presents a collecting opportunity like no other.

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