Romain de Tirtoff (aka Erté) was born in St Petersburg in 1892. He grew up in a well-to-do upper class family and as a little boy he was introduced to the elegance typical of the haute bourgeoisie. Her mother used to take him with her during cultural gatherings, so he had the chance to watch the alluring elegance of well-dressed high society ladies adorned with sparkling fine jewellery. Russia's social elite used to meet in fine interiors' apartments full of arts like paintings and ancient objects such as Greek vases and similar artefacts. His passion for classical art will inspire him so much during his career. Also his father's Perisan miniatures can be found as well in many of his illustrations.
However, the experience that changed his life for ever was his visit at the Universal Exposition of Paris in 1900. During that year, the Belle Epoque was at its most sparkle, with Paris as the cultural Capital of the world. This period, starting in 1871 and ending with the beginning of the Great War in 1914, was known as an age of happiness, peace, optimism and prosperity. The non-stop discoveries and technological innovations instilled good vibrations in people of the time and the industrial production as well as the world trade increased consistently. The little Romain was so fascinated, both with the city as well as by what he saw at the fair that, later on, he decided to moved to Paris to pursue a career as a designer.
“I believe that feminine clothes should serve to adorn women’s charm”
— Romain de Tirtoff (Erté)
While waiting for his first brake in Paris, Romain frequented as many ballets as possible, where he could admire the magnificent costume-like clothing accessorised by sophisticated jewellery. This passion would lead him to reap dividends for his career alongside his future works.
Finally, his unique talent was immediately recognized by Paris most established couturiers and in 1913 he was summoned to work with couturier Paul Poiret, who fell in love with his drawings. The flowing curvilinear form of the extravagant gowns characterized its works that sometimes were signed by Poiret himself. While working for the French maison, Romain designed a number of costumes for various theatrical productions under the pseudonym of Erté that he will use along his whole career.
But it’s in 1915 that Erté actually started to make a name for himself. He decided to send his drawings to Harper’s Bazaar, a leading American fashion magazine that hired him the same year. After just few months of covers, he was considered by the magazine as a famous creative and talented designer so they offered him a 10-year exclusivity contract. What readers liked of Erté appealing front covers where the colourful and elegant lines that they perceived as innovative fashion.
Harper's Bazaar, 1915-1929
Erté covers for Harper’s Bazaar were not intended as dress design but rather as more abstract notions of style and fashion. His delicate figures and sophisticated, glamorous designs were instantly recognisable (they still are today) and became pretty notorious and appreciated all over the world.
Taking Paris, New York and Hollywood
While creating front covers for Harper's Bazaar, he exploited his knowledge and love for theatre starting new collaborations. One of those was the fruitful association with legendary Folies-Bergères in 1923 - a cabaret music hall and strong symbol of French and Parisian life that was at the height of its fame and popularity through the 1920s. He had the amazing opportunity to design not just the costumes but also the setting, creating elaborated clothing for the actors.
The echo of his successful collaboration with the Parisian cabaret reached the other side of the Atlantic, where in 1923 theatre impresario George White commissioned to Erté the costume design for its own Broadway revue Georges White’s Scandals that had been running on Broadway since 1911. The Scandals launched popular dances like Charleston, Black Bottom and Lindy Hop, all symbols of the Jazz Age. The collaboration with White continued until 1929, when Wall Street Crash suddenly bock out the crazy Roaring Twenties.
Throughout this period, the artist also created original costume and fashion designs for many of the era’s most renowned screen actresses, including Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Marion Davies, Anna Pavlova, Norma Shearer and others. His creations for the stage included extravagant designs for productions at such venues as New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the Casino de Paris and the Paris Opera.
After he took over Paris and New York, Erté also conquered the west coast. In 1924 he was approached by MGM studios in Hollywood to design sets for the film Ben-Hur. He was already known by American society for his works at Harper’s Bazaar so that he was given a warm welcome on his arrival, like a true star. The costuming phase in silent motion pictures production was of crucial importance, that’s why the director chose him. He also worked on the set of other movies during his stay in Hollywood.
Harper's Bazaar, 1930 - 1936
Erté continued working throughout his life, designing revues, ballets, and operas. After a period of relative obscurity in the 1940s and 1950s, Erté's characteristic style found a new and enthusiastic market in the 1960s when the artis was about 75. He had a major rejuvenation and much lauded interest in his career during these years with the Art Deco revival and his works appealed the so-called "psychedelic generation" of the period. He branched out into the realm of limited edition prints, bronzes, and wearable art.
During the 1980s his works, as popular as ever, were being reproduced and sold as expensive serigraphs and lithographs signed by Erté and issued in limited editions. One of his best known images is Symphony in Black, where he depicts a curvilinear stylized woman, very tall and draped in black, holding the leash of a sinuous black dog. This print has become through the years a timeless piece among his entire collection, being reproduced countless times. It reveals how Art Deco style looks still modern because of its elements of fantasy and idealization.
Erté died in 1990 at the age of 97. He will always be remembered for the gloriously extravagant costumes and stage sets as well as his sophisticated drawings capable to mesmerize everyone and that keep enthralling subsequent generations of admirers.