Erté, the Forgotten Art Deco Genius

To hell with the tsar’s navy and officer's stripes! Instead, Russian-born Romain de Tirtoff (Erté, the French pronunciation of his initials) came to Belle Epoque Paris to be an artist, fashion designer, star illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar, and leading figure of the Art Deco movement. Yet his adoptive country never afforded him the same recognition he enjoyed in the United States, where he was nicknamed “the Genius.” The artist passed away in Paris in 1990, but his avant-garde creations will be exhibited at the M.S. Rau gallery in New Orleans from October 14.
Erté, Hélène de Sparte, 1927. Courtesy of M.S. Rau, New Orleans

On November 9, 1982, around 11 p.m., Diana Ross stood up to sing “Happy Birthday.” The subject of her performance was a discreet, elegant gentleman with silver hair, dressed in a black leather tuxedo. Accompanied by 250 friends, the Russian-born French artist Erté was celebrating his 90th birthday in a Manhattan restaurant. He was enjoying a moment of glory for the second time in his career, selling his Art Deco works to Andy Warhol, Elton John, and Barbara Streisand.

Romain de Tirtoff arrived in Paris in 1912. He was 19, and fleeing the career as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy his family envisioned for him. Impressed by the City of Lights, which he had first discovered during the 1900 Exposition Universelle, he wanted to become an artist. His sketches caught the eye of Paul Poiret, the couturier famed for having freed women from their corsets, and he was hired as a designer. He signed his contract with his artist’s name, Erté.

Along with dresses, hats, and accessories, the young, self-taught designer created theater sets and costumes. This was the time of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the exotic performances of Mata Hari. But World War I put an end to the frenzy of the Belle Epoque. Erté found refuge in Monte Carlo and soon set his eyes on America. From 1915 through 1937, he created 2,000 illustrations using ink and gouache paint for the Harper’s Bazaar women’s magazine.

Erté, the Aesthetic of the 1920s

His covers splashed with arabesques and straight lines were a break from the Victorian aesthetic of the pre-war era and reflected the dawn of a new society. The Erté woman was a dancer, weightless, liberated from constraints and decorum, a goddess from Eastern mythology, a warrior crowned with sunlight. She was independent, had short hair, smoked, drove, and dabbled in rowing, water-skiing, and luging. Through his vision, Erté invented the aesthetic of the 1920s, and was applauded by his employer. “What would Harper’s Bazaar have been if it wasn’t for Erté?” said press magnate William Randolph Hearst, owner of the magazine.

Erté and actress Carmel Myers wearing the peacock costume he designed for her for the film Ben-Hur, 1925. © Sevenarts Ltd
The last letter of Erté’s Alphabet, a set of illustrated letters he designed between 1927 and 1967. © Sevenarts Ltd
Angel Harpist in Blues, a design for the revue Rhapsody in Blue at the Apollo Theater, New York City, 1926. © Sevenarts Ltd

The Erté style was all the rage, and soon made it out of the magazines and onto the shelves. His unisex cuts and materials such as velvet, previously used for womenswear, were best-sellers in New York department stores Henri Bendel and B. Altman. His costumes and sets were in every theater, including Les Folies Bergères, the Alhambra and the Lido in Paris, the Alcazar in Marseille, the Chicago Opera, and Broadway and the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. His sketches for the 1927 musical comedy Manhattan Mary have inspired a pin sold once at the Metropolitan Museum of Art store, featuring a skyscraper reflecting golden sunlight.

In February 1925, Erté set off for the United States. Until then, he had managed to sell his work without ever leaving France, but Hollywood insisted. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered him a one-year contract, a company Packard car, and created an identical reproduction of his studio in Sèvres. Erté received a hero’s welcome, and gave 197 interviews on the boat, in New York City, and in Los Angeles! He also made sets and costumes for the epic movie Ben-Hur (1925). The peacock crown with Egyptian motifs he designed for actress Carmel Myers became a cult piece, and inspired a ring and drop earrings in a 2020 Met Store collection.

The Psychedelic Sixties

Erté never finished his contract with MGM. Held back by impossible deadlines and arguments with actresses, he decided to return to France. His sumptuous cinema and theater creations set a precedent in the United States, but Erté fell on hard times in the late 1930s. The artist was penniless after the recession. His shows were stopped one after another, and no one bought his work. He sold his house, dismissed his servants, and moved to a small apartment in Boulogne-Billancourt, west of Paris.

In a turn of events, the hippies gave the aging artist a new lease on life. His arabesques and mythological figures were rediscovered in the 1960s, and the psychedelic movement used them as inspiration for concert posters for the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin. The Art Deco movement was enjoying a major comeback. In 1967, the year of the Summer of Love, an Erté retrospective was held at the Grosvenor Gallery in New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought all 170 works before the exhibition opened!

Erté was back on top. The artist finished his Alphabet, a collection of illustrated letters he had started in 1927, designed the show for the Montreal Expo 67, and made a triumphant return to theater by dressing dancers Ginger Rogers and Zizi Jeanmaire. The centerpiece of the collection sold at the Met Store is an homage to the French cabaret icon: a gold-plated necklace set with 99 Swarovski crystals in a succession of openwork fans and palmettes. A double reference to Ancient Egypt and the Art Deco movement. Erté would have approved.

Erté & the Era of Art Deco
, from October 14, 2023, through January 3, 2024, at the M.S. Rau gallery in New Orleans.

Article published in the March 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.