By Sal Maccarone
After the turn of the 20th century every field of art seemed to be in flux. During this time there were several artists whose work would serve to influence, and thereby change the direction that art would take. Romain de Tirtoff, (1892-1990), simply known to the world as Erté, was one of these multi-faceted individuals. Although he was born in Russia, the name Erté was derived from the French pronunciation of his initials; R.T. Ultimately he was to have a profound effect upon the Realms of illustration, fashion, movie set and costume design.
Starting out in Paris as an artist, Erté apprenticed under the master designer of the time, Paul Poiret. In 1915, at the age of twenty-three, he made his debut in America as an illustrator for the magazine Harper’s Bazaar. His illustrations were in such demand at the time, it is said that he flipped a coin to decide what magazine he would work for. During that first year he was charged with the design of Harper’s January cover, and the rest became history. From there he would go on to design another two hundred magazine covers, and enjoy a long career as the premiere fashion designer of the Art Deco movement. He has even been called the father of that movement.
During the economic boom known as the roaring 20’s, Erté would shift his attention to set and costume design. Early on he designed elaborate sets for the Ziegfeld Follies, and many other musical revues in America. His trademark flowing gowns with their long trailing trains are still icons of popular style.
Hollywood would eventually look towards Erté. He was the designer behind many of the early movies which were produced by William Randolph Hearst. Then as cinematography was making a transition from silent to sound the emphasis turned to big production, (as opposed to good acting). He worked on the original Ben-Hur movie in 1924 for Louis B. Mayer, and then again for the MGM remake in 1959 which won eleven Academy Awards. Aside from work in major productions, he was the world’s first fashion designer with clientele that included a long list of greats.
Erté was re-discovered in the 1960’s which resulted in an Art Deco Revival that lasted for three decades, (longer than the original movement). During this revival period, while in his 70’s, he began creating metal sculpture, lithographs, serigraphs and paintings to satisfy the demand for his art. Glamour and beauty were always the essence of whatever he did, and his signature style is instantly recognizable around the world.