Erté: Father of Art Deco
by Judith Brown and Serena Kovalosky
Romain de Tirtoff (1892-1990) was a Russian-born artist, who worked in France under the pseudonym Erté, which was derived from the French pronunciation of his initials (pronounced [ɛʁ.te],AIR TAY). Erté grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia during the era of Mir Iskusstva, a time when creative geniuses such as Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst and Sergei Diaghilev were fusing together the extravagances of rococo with art nouveau. Possessing a uniquely creative flair, Erté’s works included fashion illustrations, jewelry, costume design and graphic art as well as opera, film and theater set designs. His name became synonymous with the art deco movement which uses bold colors and geometric shapes. The movement was ignited in Europe, enjoyed a high point during the roaring 1920s, and had a huge influence on modern art.
Born Roman Petrovich Tyrtov in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the artist moved to Paris in 1912 to fulfill his dream of becoming a fashion designer, despite objections from his father who preferred he continue the family tradition and become a naval officer. Tirtoff took on the name of Erté to avoid disgracing his family.
Impressed by his talent, professional couturiers were keen to collaborate on projects, notably Paul Poiret, whereby Erté’s detailed gouache and ink fashion drawings were sold to fashion houses.
His first substantial contract with Harper’s Bazaar magazine launched his illustrious career, and as it progressed, Erté went on to cross barriers within the arts, becoming a revolutionary who cultivated an interdisciplinary approach, expressing the idea of “theatricality” through a variety of mediums. His work as an illustrator led him to draw women’s dresses and hats which in turn led to further roles as a designer not only of stage costumes, but production sets. His grand set designs included opera houses in Chicago and Paris and the Folies Bergère, a Parisian cabaret house with whom he had a working relationship from 1919 to 1930. The poster below is just one example of his highly stylized designs which often feature flowing materials, enhanced with jewels and decorative embellishments sketched on the basis of an art deco landscape. The shapes blend together in an effortless way. Erté remained close to the art deco style all his life; he was its pioneer. Even when its popularity subsided between the wars, he still worked within the parameters of art deco, receiving a “second wave” of public acclaim when the style was revived in the 1960s.
The glamorous environment of the music halls undoubtedly had a profound effect on the continuation of Erté’s work, perhaps accounting for his interest in “visual spectacle” and the heavily stylized body displaying magical costumes. It has been said that his “spectacular fashions transformed the ordinary into the outstanding, whose period costumes made the present vanish mystically into the past, and whose décors converted bare stages into sparkling wonderlands of fun and fancy”.
By the time he had become an established designer of magazine covers for Harper’s Bazaar (1916 – 1937), his notoriety was being galvanized and he produced a total of 240 magazine covers as well as illustrations for Vogue. The prominence of these publications catapulted Erté, and art deco, into the spotlight. His lavish designs, sense of liberty and movement coincided particularly well with the mood of the magazine which mirrored women’s growing freedom within fashion.
Folies Bergère (Cabaret Music Hall) - Paris, France
Hélène Martini, The Iron Lady presents “I Am Madly in Love!”
Vintage Theater Poster by Erté c.1974
Described by some as a development of art nouveau (1890 – 1910), art deco is a dynamic mix of cubism, visual drama and diverse modern materials. Its effects have been felt throughout interior design, jewelry and architecture. Examples of art deco buildings include the Chrysler building in New York, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Hoover building in London. They took the form of symmetrical shapes with well-defined edges, much like Erté’s sophisticated designs, in which the influence of distinct lines and geometric expression enhances a modern, fresh feel while maintaining a soft fluidity to the figure.
Vertical and horizontal lines are used to depict stylised bodies, draped with rich velvet gowns in lavish colors which are dotted with materials such as beads and crystal. What would have been new and emerging trends back then are now commonly seen in the fashion world, as are a wide range of materials including pearls and metal. Not only did Erté cast a huge sway over twentieth century artistry, he bridged theater with fashion. As his images drew attention away from the premise of the body as an entity in itself and towards the “spectacle,” he encapsulated the desire for fantasy through exuberant costume and glamour. Erté’s visionary skill was applied to almost every single artistic discipline in the twentieth century: magazine illustration, theater, opera and film. His designs were seized upon by famous couture houses such as Yves Saint Laurent, keen to embrace such opulence.
Upon close examination, Erté’s designs embody both a measureless imagination and precise detail. All of his images seem to contain a different storyline based on a faraway world in addition to varying materials, shape design and use of props. He often uses intricate, flowing trains in his dress gowns as well as the embroidered headdress covered with sequins, beads or jewels. Even the textures are lifelike. Boldness of color was certainly not feared. Erté was influenced heavily by realms removed from our own, specifically that of animals and cultures of the past including Indian Egyptian and Russian as well as ancient Greek figures and pottery. He was drawn to the imagery of the peacock bird which can be traced in the outline of many of his pieces in terms of color and shape. Clearly the range of sources which triggered his artistic ideas is huge, even if looking at his costumes alone. All of this contributes to the fantastical, “performance” element of his work.
The 1960s began a revival of art deco. As an innovative artist Erté turned his hand to bronze sculpture, replicating his designs in this new medium. His sense of characterization shines through yet again, as does the lifelike presence of the figurines in which none of his detail is lost. Erté believed that this new art form would offer an opportunity to deliver greater authenticity and a revised wave of artistic patterns. Further, he was aligning himself with what had become even more of a visual society than it had been in the 1920s. One could say that a large part of his success is attributable to a certain shape-shifting quality, the fact that he was constantly applying himself to technique in accordance with the developing pace of art but without losing his identity. Art deco was becoming a commercial success that now defined aesthetic culture, and Erté was very much at the forefront.
In 1977 his “alphabet” series book was released, a creative depiction of each letter based on the human body. Although this was started many years earlier, it had been put on hold due to an overflow of work projects.
In 1988, two years before his death in April 1990, Courvoisier commissioned Erté to create seven limited bottle designs for their Grande Champagne cognacs, with each of the bottles’ design representing a different facet of the cognac-making process.
Today Erté’s artistic creations can be seen in museums around the world including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Not only do they maintain their unusual, glamorous appeal but also a timeless quality, no matter which medium has been used. The art deco style continues to influence modern day contemporary fashion and jewelry. This is, to a large extent, due to Erté’s imaginative powers and fine artistry.
Contemporary artist and former fashion illustrator Barbara Tyler Ahlfield says of his work, “Erté’s sense of drama and sophisticated style are the fundamental elements that any serious fashion illustrator seeks to deliver through an illustration. The 1930s were a golden age of Erte's art deco imagery in design but he was active and producing for decades - truly the dream of most artists, illustrators and designers.”
 Jean Tibbetts, Erté, 1997
About the Authors
Judith Brown is a freelance writer who, after obtaining a masters in English from Kings College London, continued to pursue an interest in art. In her articles she draws links between art and literature, showing how both mediums have meaning in today's world.
Contact Information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Serena Kovalosky is a sculptor, cultural project developer and film producer who creates and produces projects at the intersection of art, culture and travel. She is the founder of Artful Vagabond Productions whose mission is to celebrate the creativity and inspiration that artists bring to this world and to promote the value of art in an “artful” lifestyle.
Artful Vagabond Productions – www.artfulvagabond.com
Serena Kovalosky artwork – musings-on-art.org/painter/serena-kovalosky