In a recent TikTok video, the multimedia artist Anna Marie Tendler jokes about the “clear and stress-free” path to her current career breakthrough. In under three minutes she covers her stints as a hairstylist and makeup artist, a book based on her hair Tumblr, watching a lot of Real Housewives, making Victorian lampshades, getting a master's in costume studies, and, in passing, the “really bad year” that led her to download TikTok in the first place and make her first video. Her deadpan delivery and her musical, animated-heroine-ish voice contrast sharply with the moody self-portraits that accompany her narration. If this clip on your For You page was your introduction to Tendler, you’d immediately want to know more, even if you didn’t know the one thing that used to be the only thing most people knew about her: that she was, until recently, married to internationally famous nice-guy comedian John Mulaney. Certainly, the half-million people who follow her on TikTok and Instagram and tweet things like “Anna Marie Tendler got me in the divorce” are paying attention.

The 36-year-old artist invited me into her home for a tour last November. She has spent the past year decorating a sprawling 19th-century stone house in the Connecticut woodlands about an hour and a half outside New York City, turning it into the backdrop for her recent series of haunting photographs, “Rooms in the First House.” These stylized, intricately composed self-portraits and interiors, some of which Tendler first debuted on Instagram, were recently exhibited at a Brooklyn art fair where they sold out quickly, some fetching prices in the mid-six figures.

anna marie tendler
Oscar de la Renta midi dress; jewelry her own.
Lorenz Schmidl

As we walk through long, high-ceilinged galleries decorated with antique furniture, ornate light fixtures, and lush William Morris wallpapers, Tendler jokes about how as a child she longed to live in a haunted dollhouse. In her photographs, the haunted doll is Tendler. In one shot, she lies seemingly broken on the stairs, staring mournfully at an iPhone. In another, titled Dinner in March, she sits alone at the dinner table, her hair loose, gazing mournfully across the perfect, perfectly empty room.

Tendler’s Pre-Raphaelite-muse looks—waist-length auburn hair, enormous eyes, dramatic pallor—are just as striking in real life as they are in her photographs. When she answers the door, she is wearing a floor-length vintage caftan with furry cuffs. As she leads me through the house, explaining the origins of each exquisite object, I finally spot something that seems not quite to belong among a collection of objects on a windowsill and point it out to Tendler. “This is just a painting of Petunia that someone who was a fan of John’s painted and then gave to him at a show.”

We pause in front of the unframed oil portrait. It’s a great likeness of the dog, who has 151,000 Instagram followers. Petunia is following close at our heels as we tour the house, wheezing adorably as French bulldogs do. “He doesn’t want it?” I ask.

“I don’t think so.”

anna marie tendler
Oscar de la Renta gown.
anna marie tendler
Clothing and jewelry her own.
Lorenz Schmidl

Tendler bought the house with Mulaney in June of 2020, during the first Covid-19 lockdown, but she has only ever lived there completely alone. The process of decorating the house has coincided with Tendler’s heartbreak, and that shows in the dark, calm, almost sepulchral environment—a stage set for her art as well as an artwork unto itself. It’s also been a therapeutic retreat, though Tendler is aware of how her ascetic lifestyle there might seem strange to outsiders. “I do miss my friends, and I am aware that I’m maybe a little too young to be living in the middle of the woods by myself,” she says. She’s trying not to lean into what she describes as “becoming Grey Gardens.” But she’s also in love with her surroundings in a profound way: “I was able to create the space that, even as a child, I always wanted to live in.”

I feel like, well, it can only go up from here, because I reached the depth of where I could go.

To create this new habitat, she first had to lose much of what used to define her: an apartment in New York’s West Village and her house in L.A., for starters, but also her public identity as half of a famous couple who, for many, were representative of something much larger than themselves. She was introduced to the public as a character in Mulaney’s standup: the cherished, funny oddball wife, the girl who rejected the rug he and Jerry Seinfeld bought her on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with a hilariously understated “Mmm, that’s not going to work.”

In his 2015 special, The Comeback Kid, soon after their marriage, Mulaney made it clear that he and Tendler didn’t want kids. The result was that they were taken up as standard-bearers for other child-free-by-choice couples. Since Mulaney now has a baby with actress Olivia Munn, that group of fans has been feeling particularly betrayed. Coverage of the split has been so feverish that it has even spawned meta coverage, as critics have analyzed how the fan outcry over Mulaney’s perceived perfidy was an example of fans’ unhealthy “parasocial” relationship to the comedian.

anna marie tendler oscar de la renta
Oscar de la Renta gown; jewelry her own.
Lorenz Schmidl

Tendler and Mulaney announced the divorce in May 2021 in separate statements delivered via publicists; in hers, Tendler described herself as “heartbroken.” Also in May, Mulaney and Munn’s relationship was first made public. And in September, Mulaney confirmed Munn’s pregnancy on Late Night with Seth Meyers, saying, “Olivia and this baby have helped save me from myself.” When I ask Tendler about her divorce, she demurs. “Everything that has transpired has been totally shocking and I think surreal,” she says. “In a way, I feel like, well, it can only go up from here, because I reached the depth of where I could go.”

The early spring of 2021, as vaccines were just becoming available to most Americans, was a bleak time for many; for Tendler, the isolation was almost unbearable. “I had a lot of bad days and medium days. I wouldn’t say I had any good days until the summer.” She pushed herself to do something artistic every day, even if it was small. “I feel so lucky that so much of my work is this mundane, detail-oriented handwork. I’m working with a needle and thread, and it’s like, if I’m not on it, I’m going to prick myself with a needle and fuck something up.” She smiles slyly and shifts her quirky voice into a more declarative register. “Just have your whole life fall apart and then develop a hand skill!”

Tendler’s self-deprecating jokes and TikToks about her career don’t do justice to the ambitious and interesting work she’s been doing for years. The elaborate handcrafted silk lampshades, which she acknowledges are a bit of a punchline, led her to other textile art and conservation work and eventually to her master’s degree in costume studies from NYU. She completed the degree last year, in spite of everything. In early 2021, Tendler was writing hundreds of words a day for her thesis, “The Lip Filler Phenomenon: Modern Medicine, Kylie Jenner, and Post-Feminist Sexuality.” “I truly do not remember writing it, but I got it done,” she says. In one of the upstairs bedrooms of her house, she sat looking out the window onto the beautiful, sometimes bleak woods that surround her house and wrote a 78-page academic paper about the use of cosmetic fillers throughout history.

I have a very strong inner critic, which is constantly reminding me that this could and will disappear if you don't continue to make new work.

The photography project represented a new artistic frontier for Tendler. Though she has been taking 35mm Leica photos since high school, the house’s mood and her own began to inspire her in new ways, and in March 2021 she began to work on the series that would become “Rooms in the First House.” The project has brought Tendler new fans and an almost uncomfortable amount of acclaim. “I am in a place where I am able to make money from my art, which is amazing and is great but is also terrifying because I have a very strong inner critic, which is constantly reminding me that this could and will disappear if you don’t continue to make new work. And what if the next project that I work on doesn’t resonate with people in the way that this did?”

anna marie tendler carolina herrera resort 2022
Carolina Herrera mini dress; jewelry her own.
Lorenz Schmidl

Nicole Garton, fair director at the Other Art Fair, says that she was thrilled but not surprised that Tendler’s photographs got such a warm reception at the fair. “Her aesthetic and her eye feel both so both historical and also feels super contemporary,” she says. Garton even purchased one of the prints for her own collection, though her favorite of the series, in which Tendler lights a cigarette off an ornate candelabra, had already sold out. “Even though they’re very personal to her, I think so much of what is conveyed is so universal, where the longing, staring into the snow during winter or staring into candlelight, all of these sort of evocative moments, they just tapped into something that so many people can relate to.”

Still, Tendler knows that she has a kind of artistic freedom and potential to flex her skills that few people have access to, and she feels a deep responsibility to make the most of it. Though she has lived a very rarefied existence for years, she didn’t grow up with money. “People hear Connecticut and they think Greenwich,” she says, clarifying that her parents lived on one income and she attended public school—and she doesn’t take any of what she gained during her years with Mulaney for granted. “I do not want to have squandered that. I want to use the skills that I was able to glean from that time, that I had that time to figure out what I wanted to do. Because I know a lot of people don’t get that.”

anna marie tendler
Tendler's own vintage Thea Porter dress and jewelry.
Lorenz Schmidl

The idea that some degree of public life is an inextricable price of artistic success is something that Tendler struggles with. She doesn’t want to be famous, she says; she has witnessed firsthand how horrible being famous is. But also, her TikTok was featured in the New York Times arts section, and her recent Instagram caption about grief and growth made headlines everywhere from the Daily Mail to Vanity Fair. She is often told that her distinctive speaking voice would suit her well to voiceover work, or at the very least a podcast. And the success of her nascent photography career is undeniable. Where all of this will lead, though, is still something Tendler is very much in the process of figuring out.

One of the most liberating aspects of her divorce has been that Tendler has been able to revisit some of the big life questions that had previously felt settled. When I ask her, point-blank, about the no-kids thing, she says that she “always held partnership above having kids.” But also, she says, she is certainly going to freeze her eggs.

“There were things I never even thought about before because that was just a closed door. So now that it feels like not as much of a closed door, it’s something that I ruminate on a lot,” she explains. The upheaval of her divorce is still fresh, but now that Tendler has survived 2021, her new life is beginning to feel exhilarating more often than it feels terrifying. “I feel lucky that I get to be standing on the precipice of all of these new things, that I get to possibly experience, and who knows how they will go? And there is certainly something exciting about that.”

There were things I never even thought about before because that was just a closed door...I feel lucky that I get to be standing on the precipice of all these new things.

In the photograph Tendler posted on Instagram for New Year’s, two Anna Maries sit across from each other at her dining table. The composition is identical to the mournful Dinner in March, but the diners are different: versions of the same self, smiling in gorgeous gowns. One playfully lights a cigarette off a white taper, while the other reaches a candle towards her other self, offering illumination, sharing sustenance. “Change cannot be warded off,” the caption reads, in part. For Tendler, the most important changes might just be beginning.

anna marie tendler
Clothing and jewelry her own.
Lorenz Schmidl

Opening Image: Tendler's own gown and jewelry.