When it comes to Art Deco, one artist can be credited for influencing a generation more than any other. Romain de Tirtoff, more commonly known by his pseudonym Erté, was a true polymath. He was brilliantly gifted in art and design across a wide swath of mediums, including graphic arts, jewellery, costuming, set design, interior décor and fashion. His enduring influence on Art Deco (and beyond) is felt all over the world to this day.
History of Erté
Erté (short for the French pronunciation of initials R and T) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on 23 November 1892. His father was an admiral in the Imperial Fleet, and his privileged upbringing allowed him access to an array of art and culture. He was particularly fascinated by a set of Persian miniatures found in his father’s library, and their bright colours and patterned designs would influence his work throughout his life.
Erté’s Artistic Career
At the age of 18, Erté moved to Paris in order to pursue a career in the art world. He began a long term working relationship with Harper’s Bazaar in 1915, for which he would go on to create more than 240 magazine covers over the span of 22 years. His elaborate fashion designs appeared in the pages of many different magazines (including Vogue), and his work would go on to define the look and feel of the 1920s.
Throughout the 20s, Erté was a prolific costume designer, creating original fashions and costumes for some of the most famous actresses of the era. Norma Shearer, Anna Pavlova, Marion Davies, Lillian Gish and Joan Crawford all wore his designs on stage and screen.
In 1925, Erté moved to Hollywood at the behest of Louis B. Mayer. He was meant to design the costumes and sets for a silent film entitled Paris, but delays with the script meant that he had a lot of free time to work on other classics. During this period he designed sets and costumes for The Mystic, Ben Hur, The Comedian and Dance Madness. He also costumed many stage productions, including shows at Les Folies-Bergères, George White’s Scandals, New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the Paris Opera and the Casino de Paris.
Erté was uncharacteristically quiet throughout the 1940s and 50s, but in the 1960s he began a renewed period of productivity. From this period, his most famous work is Symphony in Black, a stylised piece that depicts an angular woman clad in elaborate black garments and a headdress, holding a black greyhound dog on a lead.
His earlier Art Deco works were in high demand, and Erté responded to this by creating a series of bronze sculptures in 1980, at age 88! These pieces embody and capture the spirit and design ethos of Art Deco, but they were created long after the Art Deco period ended, which tends to unnerve all but the most knowledgeable collectors.
It is important to note they are not merely ‘copies’ of the earlier era – they are important works by a pioneer of the original style. He transferred his own original drawings and designs into another medium – his highly sought after sculptures. This era of sculpture continues an important artistic conversation began decades earlier, and they are a deeply interesting and meaningful part of the Art Deco timeline and of Erté’s portfolio.
Romain de Tirtoff’s Sculptural Style
Erté’s passion was fashion, and he loved to see his designs come to life, so when he switched to the medium of bronze, his focus was on the costumes rather than the people wearing it, so you will note his sculptures tend to have fairly plain faces that are not the focus.
In his sculpture Erté makes the transition from two to three dimensions with an apparent ease and efficacy that set him apart from the 1920’s artist. His training as a fashion designer conditioned him to conceive his sketches in the round, to envisage clearly how they would look when transposed from the drawing board to the human form, viewed simultaneously from different angles across the room. Most other sculptors focus mainly on the front of the piece then the sides and reverse receive secondary definition and detailing to complete the composition. The strong three-dimensionality of Erté’s sculpture is a major element in its success.
As he noted “Sculpting is a natural impulse, in my creative technique I conceive designs in three dimensions… It is impossible for a fashion designer to produce a model of each design, so he must be content with a drawing. Any designer is thus restricted to two dimensions, and a fashion designer is also confined to the predictable form. Sculpting – working in three dimension – has relieved me of these restrictions and has allowed me to exercise all of my creative impulses, including the use of colour and the modelling of fantastic forms. The greatest thrill of any fashion designer is to see his drawing come to life – to rise from the flat page and be worked into costumes that transform the wearer into an object of beauty and desire. Only when a design is realised can its success be properly judged. I am filled with a sense of excitement whenever I see and touch a bronze from my Sculpture Collection, through which I have been able to see my drawings, thoughts, ideas and dreams come to life as never before’
Recognition and Awards
In 1976 the French government bestowed Erté with the prestigious title of ‘Officer of Arts and Letters.’ In 1982, he was presented with the Medaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. Erté passed away in 1990, but his influence is still heavily felt today in the art, design and fashion worlds.
Where to Find Romain de Tirtoff’s work
His work can now be found in the collections of many important museums around the world, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); and at Museum 1999 in Tokyo.
Erté and Hickmet Fine Arts
If you would like to see Erté sculptures in person, we currently have a number of pieces in our collection, most of which will be on our stand at the NEC Antiques for Everyone Summer Fair later this month. All of these are signed, dated, numbered and stamped, and they are important pieces in the Erté catalogue. Please drop us a line for more information, or simply visit our stand to see them in person.