“Amoureuse” by Erté, 1977
Our artist of the week: Erté
There can't be many more diversely talented and accomplished artists in 20th century history than Erté - real name Romain de Tirtoff - who worked over his 97-year life in fields such as graphic arts, fashion, jewellery, interior design, and set design including film, theatre and opera - excelling in them all. Perhaps the greatest tribute that one can make to the Russian-born Frenchman, however, would be to reference the term so often used for him as "the father of Art Deco".
More than just another artist and designer
Erté was born Roman Petrovich Tyrtov on November 23, 1892 in St. Petersburg, then the Russian Empire. His family was a distinguished one - his father, Pyotr Ivanovich Tyrtov, serving as an admiral in the Russian Fleet and expectant of his son following the family tradition by becoming a naval officer. Such was the strength of Pyotr's objections to the young Romain's artistic aspirations, that the latter adopted the pseudonym Erté - based on how his initials ‘R. T.’ were pronounced in French - to avoid any disgrace to his family.
In the years immediately preceding World War I, Romain had already relocated to Paris to pursue a design career, working for the leading French fashion designer, Paul Poiret from 1913 -1914. He then landed his first significant contract with Harper's Bazaar magazine in 1915. So began one of the most formidable creative partnerships of the 20th century, which saw Erté design more than 200 covers for the legendary publication until 1937.
Magazine Cover - Harper's Bazaar, November 1920
However, Erté was far from complacent with such a lucrative association, his illustrations also appearing in publications including Cosmopolitan, Illustrated London News, Vogue and Ladies' Home Journal. Indeed, he is probably even better known for his elegant fashion work that - with its characteristic sophistication, glamour and delicate figures - has been seen as perfectly encapsulating the Art Deco period. Stage and screen goddesses such as Irène Bordoni, Gaby Deslys, Lillian Gish, Joan Crawford, Aileen Pringle, Marion Davies, Norma Shearer and Anna Pavlova all wore his unique and elaborate costumes. "Every human being has a duty to make himself as attractive as possible. Not many of us are born beautiful; … Clothes are a kind of alchemy," pronounced Erté.
Erté and Aileen Pringle during the final fittings for her costumes for “The Mystic”, 1925. Source: Pretty Clever Films
An array of both likely and unlikely fields
Such was Erté's increasingly renowned versatility that his involvement in theatre programme and set design should come as no great surprise. Beneficiaries in this regard included the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923, various Folies Bergère productions and George White's Scandals, the latter a series of Broadway revues modelled by George White after the Ziegfeld Follies. "We had no budgets in those days … neither White nor Ziegfeld would dream of asking the cost of anything." It was through such projects that Erté furthered his passion for seemingly all things exotic and romantic.
Gladys Glad, Ziegfeld Follies Girl, Costume Design by Erté , Photo by Alfred Cheney Johnston, circa 1926
One of the slightly lesser-known aspects of Erté's career is his short but successful spell in Hollywood. The co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios, Louis B. Mayer, requested that he design sets and costumes for the 1926 silent film, Paris. Script problems led to Erté being handed various other assignments, resulting in his involvement in films such as the epic Ben-Hur, The Mystic and Dance Madness. Back in 1920, he had designed the set and costumes for the 1920 silent drama film The Restless Sex, starring Marion Davies and Ralph Kellard.
Continued relevance and popularity
Although Erté never stopped working right up until his death in April 1990, continuing to design revues, ballets and operas, he faded into relative obscurity until the 1960s, when the Art Deco revival helped to bring a major resurgence in his career. New fields of endeavour during this period included limited edition prints, bronzes and wearable art, and just two years before he died, he created seven limited edition bottle designs for Courvoisier, showing the process by which cognac is made from distillation to maturation. Only in 2008 was the last of the remaining Erté-designed Courvoisier bottles released, selling for US $10,000 a piece.
Erté Courvoisier Collection (Cognac)
To say that Erté's legacy remains healthy long after his death, would be quite the understatement. The artist has bequeathed us a plethora of iconic images. He has also been remembered in recent years with exhibitions such as that held last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, celebrating his shoe designs for famed New York designer Herman Delman - the museum having acquired 13 of them back in 1967. From June 2016, another major exhibition honouring his work will be held at the Hermitage Museum in his native St. Petersburg.
The comprehensive coverage of Erté's artistic and design treasures in the collections of public museums and private collectors around the world simply affirms once more just what fabled status he continues to enjoy among culture vultures across the globe - including ourselves right here at Addicted Art Gallery!