Romain de Tirtoff, known as Erté (1892-1990), was a Russian fashion illustrator and stage set designer, a master of the Art Deco style.
Romain de Tirtoff was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on November 23, 1892, of an aristocratic, musical family loyal to the tsar. His father descended from a Tartar Khan named Tirt and ranked as an admiral in the Imperial Naval School. The noble de Tirtoff family had always followed naval careers since Peter the Great. His mother was also an aristocrat of Cossack descent; one of her brothers, Nicholas, was military governor of St. Petersburg. Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian composer, was one of the friends of the family.
Romain's idea of feminine beauty, throughout his long life, was the pale skin and dark eyes and hair of his mother. He was already designing clothes for her at the age of five, aided by the family's resident dressmaker. She took him on aristocratic summer tours abroad all over Europe while his father was on naval maneuvers.
Before World War I the Russian capital city was elegant and replete with activity—theater, music, the arts, and fashion. Three imperial theaters dominated, where young Romain could enjoy opera (he saw Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko at the age of seven in the family's permanent box in the Maryinsky Theater) and the Ballets Russes of the famed Diaghilev. His mother took him on shopping expeditions on fashionable Nevsky Prospekt where he was enthralled by the couturier's craft. He remembered in later years that in his early teens he hated uniformed school and could hardly wait until school was out to pick up his painting and designing again.
Becomes French Even in Name
He arrived in Paris at the age of 19 (February 1912); France was to be his home thereafter. The French influence on St. Petersburg was profound, and Paris was bewitched by all things Russian in those days. In Paris Romain saw ballet-dancer Nijinsky's notorious L'Après-Midi d'un Faune and Stravinsky's composition Sacre du Printemps in 1913; Picasso and Braque had begun Cubist art-forms; Orphism, Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism were about to be launched. (In 1914 Romain designed costumes for a scene called "La Musée Cubiste" in a Paris music hall revue, Plus Ça Change, at the age of 22). Meanwhile, in December 1912 he landed a job as draftsman in a mediocre fashion-house and was dismissed after a month for having no aptitude for design!
In January 1913 Romain took his sketches to Paul Poiret, the paragon of Parisian couturiers, who had visited St. Petersburg some years before, and secured an 18-month contract. At least Poiret recognized his natural talent. Poiret was responsible for the name "Erté" (the French pronunciation of the initials of "Romain de Tirtoff"), first used professionally by Romain in the Gazette du Bon Ton in May 1913. Paul Poiret revolutionized women's clothes. He abandoned the corset and fitted bodice for the soutien-gorge (the "bra"); he adopted the simple, boyish, tubular "Empire" line, sometimes with a harem skirt (jupe culotte). Alternatively, the slit skirt, separated at the knee, was popular for the Argentine tango, a dance of the day. Poiret was the first couturier to market his own perfume, to draw on live models, and to use artists (such as Raoul Dufy) to design his fabric. Young Erté had a lot to learn from the more experienced Poiret, who was a married man in his forties. They parted with an acrimonious lawsuit, nonetheless.
Poiret's business was closed at the start of World War I, and Erté lived in Monte Carlo from 1914 to 1923. Prince Nicholas Ourousoff, a distant cousin, came to live with Erté and was his business manager. Nicholas first suggested a relationship with Harper's Bazar in New York; Erté's 2,500 pen-and-ink drawings and gouache designs in the inner pages and 240 covers lasted from January 1915 until December 1936. William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) owned the magazine as part of his publishing empire; when he lost control of it in 1937, Erté's fate was linked with that of Hearst. The new editor made a change from fashion drawing to photography, then the rage. But with his work on Harper's Bazar (the spelling of Bazaar was changed in 1929), Erté gained an international reputation for over 20 years as the world's leading fashion illustrator. He afterwards said: "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."
A Long Career of Superb Work
Theater—the stage of the French and American music hall—was the scene of the next unfolding of Erté's talent. In the economic boom times of the 1920s, the Jazz Age, the French revue, and the Broadway show were at their summit. The ambition of Erté was to design for the stage. Through Poiret, Erté designed costumes for the Dutch exotic dancer Mata Hari (who was shot by the Germans in World War I as a spy). One of the French music hall pioneers, Madame Rasimi, invited Erté to design costumes and the stage set for her revue called L'Orient Merveilleux (1917), where Erté had full range of his imagination for oriental pantomime. Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett were starring; Erté designed a series of splendid gowns with long trains and the first of the huge, plumed head-dresses, so much a specialty of Mistinguett later.
The Folies-Bergère was the first (1869) and most famed music hall in Paris, with its spectacle and almost-nude women. The workshops of Max Weldy at the Folies-Bergère were internationally known; they "exported" stage sets and costumes to theaters all over the world. Erté worked with Weldy at the Folies from 1919 to 1930, learning what he did not already know about theatrical dress-making and stage lighting and machinery. Erté's designs for the Folies-Bergère "are among his finest work," according to distinguished art historian Charles Spencer, reminiscent of Art Nouveau painting by Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secessionist group he founded.
Erté's style suited Broadway. He designed sets and costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies, George White Scandals (with music by George Gershwin), and Irving Berlin's Music Box Revue, among other shows. Erté's theatrical innovations were countless, including "living curtains" (showgirls with plumes and pearls, festooned by embroidered trains— e.g., one drawing of 1924 is in the Museum of Modern Art, New York); costumes collectifs (immense, single costumes shared by a group of performers, with a single theme—e.g., the collective design called "Silk" is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London); and tableaux vivants (e.g., L'Or, 1923, from the Ziegfeld Follies, which needed six and half miles of gold lamé). Erté commented: "We had no budgets in those days … neither White nor Ziegfeld would dream of asking the cost of anything."
Through William Randolph Hearst, Erté had a brief career in Hollywood in the 1920s, although his style did not fit too well to the film capital. He worked on The Restless Sex (1919) for Hearst's Cosmopolitan Films, on a sequence called "Bal des Arts"— a ballroom setting, with a "Babylonian hanging-garden," a style "between Art Nouveau and emergent Art Deco of the 1920s." But when he was again called on by Hollywood in an MGM film called Paris in 1925, he broke his contract and returned to Paris. Erté "found the scenario dealing with Paris life simply impossible, ghastly in fact. Neither the director, nor the scenario-writer, nor the stars, knew the least bit about life in Paris. It was a huge joke."
Dissatisfied with the Hollywood venture, apparently in 1925-1926 Erté had a "bracing change" of values toward industrial art. He began a collaboration with the French magazine Art et Industrie. He designed utility household objects, lamps, furniture, and domestic interiors. Erté published an article about changing women's fashions in the famous 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica (1929), among other projects.
During the late 1930s, World War II, and the 1940s, Erté was primarily involved in the theater in Paris, London, and elsewhere. His designs were acquired by opera, ballet, drama, and music hall companies, from the Saville Theater in London ("It's in the Bag!, 1937) to the surrealistic designs for Francis Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias in Paris (at the Opéra-Comique in 1947). On into the 1950s and 1960s he was still designing: La Plume de Ma Tante (Garrick Theater, London, 1955-1958 with Zizi Jéanmaire), productions at the Latin Quarter in New York (1964-1965), and numerous shows and spectacles throughout the world. But a real change in his career came in 1965 when he was 73: he met Eric and Salome Estorick, the founders of Seven Arts Ltd., of the Grosvenor Galleries, London and New York. They persuaded Erté to uncover thousands of perfectly preserved drawings from huge trunks in his cellar. They caused a mild sensation, a resurgence of Art Deco in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, a nostalgia craze. Also in the 1960s Erté pioneered in sheet metal sculpture with oil pigments; he called them Formes Pictorales. He also produced a series of lithographs and serigraphs for the Estoricks. With graphic art, he concluded, "I could reach the very large public that these Exhibitions had created."
Erté was in his seventies and eighties a slight man with a shock of luxuriant white hair, impeccably groomed, to whom his work was everything. Erté confessed: "My work has been my mother, my wife, my friend, my mistress and my children …." Even though he had several distinct advantages in life—in his aristocratic background in St. Petersburg, in his mother, in his friends (Poiret, Hearst, Weldy, White, and countless others, including Prince Nicholas)-he had the capability of utter concentration, patience in controlling the designs, and supreme talent. Erté's work has a timeless quality. Art Deco design is not "fine art." His art is stylized, but within its stylistic limits, his artistic designs are superb.
Aged 97, Erté fell ill in Mauritius; he was flown to Paris, his real home, where he died on April 21, 1990.
Further Reading on Erté
The major study of Erté's art by an art historian is Charles Spencer, Erté (London, 1970; rev. 1981). He wrote two books on his life: Things I Remember (1975) and My Life/My Art: An Autobiography (London, 1989). Studies of Erté's art include his book Erté Fashions (1972); Stella Blum, Designs by Erté: Fashion Drawings in Harper's Bazaar (1976); Salome Estorick, Erté Graphics: 5 complete studies (1978), Erté's Theatrical Costumes (1979), and New Erté Graphics (1984); and Marshall Lee (ed.), Erté at 95: The Complete New Graphics (extended edition, 1988) and Erté Sculpture (1986).
Additional Biography Sources
Erté, Things I remember: an autobiography, New York: Quadrangle / New York Times Book Co., 1975.
Erté, My life, my art: an autobiography, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1989.