Much of what we recognize today as Art Deco design was crafted by Erté through his strong and timeless aesthetic. Spanning many areas of visual culture, including illustrations for fashion magazines, costumes for opera and ballet, and sculpture and set design for theater, Erté’s signature style set the tone for the modern era.
Born Romain de Tirtoff in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892, Erté broke free from the conventions of his aristocratic family and moved to Paris in 1910 to follow his ambitions as an artist.
After a couple of years, his breakthrough, and arguably his biggest influence, was brief collaboration with famed Parisian couturier Paul Poiret, who renamed him “Erté” (the French pronunciation of his initials). This set Erté’s trajectory into the fashion world and before long, he was selling illustrations to Paris fashion houses and magazines. World War I and the ensuing economic decline in Europe subsequently caused Erté to focus his attentions to the American market and led him to secure a long-term contract with Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1915.
His exuberant style came into its own in the French theater world, where for 35 years, he designed the costumes and sets for esteemed productions such as Folies-Bergere in Paris and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923, and for a brief period worked on several Hollywood silent films.
Working right up until his death in 1990, Erté produced some 22,000 designs during his career, applying his talents to everything from lighting and furnishings, accessories and jewelry. He eventually branched out into the realm of limited edition prints, bronzes, and wearable art and had his work had a major revival during the 1960s with the Art Deco revival. Erté’s final swansong was in the 1980s when he completed 100 new designs for a Glyndebourne opera production.
The impact of Erté’s contributions to the principles of contemporary fashion, design, and theater, and setting the visual pace within the 20th century, cannot be underestimated. His work set the precedent for the interconnection of art and culture. Erte art majestically encapsulates the taste and aesthetic of the time, with influences drawn from diverse sources such as Russian iconography, Byzantine mosaics, Greek pottery and Indian and Egyptian art.
Admired by celebrities of the time and emulated by the everyday woman, he is one of few artists who has had significant influence over cultural trends. Erté introduced the image of a stylized body draped in beads and furs, which would define and capture the essence of a generation: spectacle, exoticism, and fantasy.
Erté introduced a sense of theatricality into Art Deco fashion, making popular velvet evening wraps with Chinese sleeves and gold embroidery, and long gowns covered in crystal and pearls. His silhouettes, asymmetrical hemlines, eye for unisex clothing, use of metals in fashion, and tailored professional-wear, influenced fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent in his 1976 Ballets Russes collection, Oscar de la Renta’s signature embellishments and draping, and the décor of London’s famous fashion emporium Biba, among others.
It is primarily through his contribution to Harper’s Bazaar magazine that Erté became known within the fashion and publishing world, changing the trajectory of fashion illustration. Erté worked for the publication for 22 years and designed more than 240 magazine covers, where he oversaw the magazine’s art direction. Harper’s Bazaar was the perfect medium to reflect the newfound freedom and love of spectacle in early-20th century American society. He portrayed the modern woman in scenes of everyday life, donning exuberant and vibrant colors and textiles, thus putting a new spin on what is perceived as glamorous.
Erté’s ideas transcended a variety of media, and he even experimented as a jewelry-maker. Though Erte jewelry is less common at auction, they reflect the same principles and aesthetics established in Erte fashion illustrations.
Erté started designing jewelry in 1979 for the Circle of Fine Art (CFA) with great success. Together, they produced a total of 328 limited edition designs. Based on the artist’s intricate style and detailed designs, his jewelry is known as Erte “Art To Wear.” He would also draw inspiration from the nautical world (his most recurring and favorite theme), animals, birds (the peacock being his favorite), and Egyptian culture, amongst other sources. From rings to earrings and pendants, he would design each collection under a different theme, such as “Fantasy,” “La Mer,” “Tempest,” or the “The Nile.” Erté’s last “Art to Wear” designs were for a series of numerals in gold. Also keep an eye out for jewelry design sketches, which prove to be highly collectible.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Erté designed sets and costumes for a great variety of Broadway theater productions. His innovations in costume design range from performers adorned with large, plumed headdresses, pearls, and embroidered trains, and costumes that evoke tableaux vivants. Erté was further set apart from contemporary theater designers by the quality and detail of his finished designs.
Erté’s designs, silhouettes, and movement influenced dancers of all genres and styles, inspiring countless imitations. Erte artwork also influenced future costume designers such as American designer Adrian Adolph Greenberg, better known as “Adrian,” and best known for his work in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz.
His first introduction to the film industry was in designing sets and costumes for Hollywood director Louis B. Mayer, such as the 1925 film Ben Hur. However, his relationship with Hollywood ended fairly quickly, partly due to the fact that Erté’s designs did not translate well into practical costumes. Not fitting within the film industry, Erté moved onto the industrial design, conceptualizing utilitarian objects and domestic interiors.
Erté’s highly detailed gouaches played a crucial role in his legacy and ensured the long-term success of the artist. This could be due to the fact that many of his costume and set designs have not survived and it is the gouaches that were preserved by Erté that still allow for a comprehensive overview of his achievements today.
From the 1970s, utilizing the revival of his work, Erté reproduced many of his gouache artworks through serigraphs and lithographs as a way to reach more audiences. In 1980, he produced a series of bronze sculptures, also based on the characters and costumes of his designs. Erté believed that these bronze sculptures allowed him to translate his ideas to an extent that was not possible on the stage or on paper. Erte’s ultimate goal was for these sculptures to become objects of beauty and desire.
In the 1960s Erte’s career experienced a renaissance, becoming again the reference for a new generation. In addition to his popularity as an artist, it is still evident how Erté’s art has had an effect on almost all aspects of visual culture, both by defining the Art Deco aesthetic and remaining timeless to this day. Erté’s ability to create worlds immersed with glamour, spectacle and fantasy still remain relevant in the 21st century, speaking to the sensibility of a cross-cultural era.