Russian born designer Erte – one of those magical names, which hides much more than it seems, however, much less than it should be. Descendant of an old Russian noble family, Romain de Tirtoff took took for himself seemingly mysterious pseudonym Erte and began a new life. Instead of a man of flesh and blood, appeared a perfect creator of unreal beauty in all its manifestations. Painter and sculptor, designer and illustrator, traveler and writer, and even cook – all these incarnations merged in him alone. Erte lived a long, incredibly beautiful and very busy life, having experienced success, and a new rise of oblivion, having to enjoy the delights of both the public recognition and captious criticism. He left Russia when he was not yet twenty, but that beauty of Russian soul he invested in all his works.
Russian-born French artist and designer Romain de Tirtoff (23 November 1892 – 21 April 1990), known by the pseudonym Erté. A diversely talented 20th-century artist and designer who flourished in an array of fields, including fashion, jewellery, graphic arts, costume and set design for film, theatre, and opera, and interior decor.
Roman Petrovich Tyrtov was born November 23, 1892 in St. Petersburg, into a noble family with a long tradition and glorious history. The Tyrtov family was known in Russia since the middle of the XVI century – according to some, its founder was Tatar khan Tyrtov, to the other – Envoy of Ivan the Terrible to the Tartar Khan Safa Giray, who was killed in a battle. From this family came a few captains, and the last two hundred years, men of Tyrtov family served in the Russian Navy. Roman’s father, Admiral Peter Ivanovich Tyrtov served as Chief of Naval Engineering School and, of course, hoping that his only son will continue the glorious traditions of five generations of his ancestors, make a career naval officer.
However, Roman had other plans: in his own words, he began to paint at three years old, and as a child understood what he wanted to do all his life. His first art Roman created when he was only six – a fashion sketch, it was a picture of a lady in evening dress. Mother carried Roman’s sketch to her dressmaker, the idea of a little boy caused a lot of admiring sighs.
Soon it became clear that drawing and art – the only thing that truly excites the young Roman. He enthusiastically engaged in classical dance under the guidance of ballerina Maria Petipa, daughter of the famous choreographer of the Mariinsky Theatre, developing natural grace and learning plastic opportunities of body. His favorite reading was art albums, but a permanent place for walks – Hermitage, in the halls of which he could wander for hours. He was particularly attracted by the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as bright exotic art of India, China and the Muslim East. He remembered visiting Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sadko” at the Mariinsky Theater, full of magical music, fantastic scenes of the underwater kingdom and fantastic costumes, and seen in my father’s library books on reproductions of Chinese and Indian miniatures, which shocked him with bright colors and fineness of details.
But the highlight of his childhood was the Paris Exhibition of 1900, which seven-year Roman visited with his mother and sister. Exhibition, of course, was a fantastic place for a little boy, but the city has made it a much stronger impression. In those years, Paris has long been recognized as the world capital of fashion, the birthplace of new trends in art and traditions storage. There lived the most beautiful people, living the brightest, the funniest, the best life. It was love at first sight: elegant, luxurious, crazy Paris completely subdued the boy, and he vowed that someday he would definitely settle in this wonderful city.
Choosing between dance and painting, Roman chose the latter. He later recalled: “I came to the conclusion that could live without dancing, but not without painting.” Although his father was strongly against artistic career of his only son, Roman seriously engaged in painting. Mother introduced him to the famous artist Ilya Repin – he praised Roman’s style of drawings and gave him some advice. In fact, it was the first professional lesson that Tyrtov got. Later he will be on the advice of Ilya Repin taking private lessons at artist Dmitry Losev, pupil of Repin.
Childhood dreams of fairy did not leave Roman. Successfully completing high school, he responds to the request of his father Admiral – to pick any gift, Roman asked for a passport. Peter Ivanovich was not pleased with this choice of his son, but kept his word: in 1912, nineteen-year-old Roman Tyrtov forever left Russia and moved to Paris.
Officially, he went to the French capital as a special correspondent of the famous Petersburg magazine “Ladies’ World” – it was his duty to write notes about fashion updates, sketch models of fashion houses and street sketches of Parisian crowd. Simultaneously Roman took a job at a small fashion house “Caroline”, but soon the hostess threw him out, adding: “Young man, engage in life something other, but never try to become a costume designer. This will not work for you”.
Humiliated in the best feelings Roman gathered all his pictures and sent them to the most famous couturier at the time Paul Poiret, known for his exotic colors, original silhouettes and revolutionary models without a corset. He was the first one called “fashion dictator” who made clothes creation of art, who saw the dress as an art object. In his work traced strong influence of scenic images created for the famous “Russian Seasons” by Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois, especially for productions of “Egyptian Nights” and “Scheherazade”. Roman admired “Russian seasons”, bright colors, and exotic images of Paul Poiret were very close to him In the House of Paul Poiret Roman Tyrtov made sketches of dresses, coats, hats and accessories. Then he took a pseudonym Erte, consisting of his initials, read in French.
Working for Poiret in collaboration with the famous painter Jose Zamora, Erte honed technique of drawing, bringing it to perfection. For a while he studied at the Julian Académie, but soon left it to fully concentrate on his work in the field of fashion. His style, full of elegance, originality and imagination, reflected the essence only then nascent art deco. Erte will stick to this style for the rest of the life, it would bring him fame.
Researchers claim that Erte mixed almost all painting traditions, both ancient and modern: from graphic brevity paintings of Greek vases and colorful Egyptian ornaments to the pretentiousness of decadence and sophistication of modernity. His drawings are full of the joy of life that is obtained primarily from the contemplation of beauty, and this beauty by Erte – thin silhouettes, luxurious fabrics, plastic fluid lines, juicy colors and amazing color combinations – was largely determined by the art of the first half of the twentieth century. He himself was like his drawings: not tall, very thin and graceful, always stylishly dressed. He, according to his contemporaries, made the impression of a cross between the picture and the revived fashion illustration to poetry collection.
In 1914, Erte left the fashion house of Paul Poiret, trying to establish his own. He prepared collection of models, whose style, as written by witnesses, was also more graphically refined. The dressmaker of Poiret helped him to create the first collection. Poiret immediately sued – and won the case in suing a former employee of considerable compensation. This, of course, spoiled relations between Poiret and Erte. But respect to his teacher, to whom he was much indebted, Erte preserved for a lifetime.
Deprived of financial and moral possibility of opening his own studio, Erte began to work for the stage. His first work in the genre of scenography were costumes for Paris’Revue de San Cyr’, and then Erte created costumes for the play “Minaret” of Paris theater “Renaissance”, in which shone the most famous exotic dancer in history Mata Hari. Cooperation with her opened for Erte the way to glory – since staging has become one of the most popular genres of Erte. At the same time Erte signed his first contract with a major fashion magazine. It is said that the offer made to him at the same time two of the most famous editions of the time – Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Erte signed a long term contract with Harper’s Bazaar.
Erte drew first Harper’s Bazaar cover for the January issue in 1915 – and since then, for more than twenty years of cooperation Erte created 250 unique Harper’s Bazaar covers, not counting the two and a half thousand of drawings and sketches that have appeared on the pages of this magazine. Owner of Harper’s Bazaar, the legendary media magnate William Hearst exclaimed: “What would be our magazine covers without Erte?”
Thanks to the cooperation with this edition, Erte crossed the ocean and became truly global. During the First World War, Erte, who moved from besieged Paris to Monte Carlo, he continued as an artist, stylist and designer, actively worked in printed fashion magazines, mostly American – his drawings published Vogue, Cosmopoliran, Women’s Home Journal and others. He drew sketches of hats, handbags, perfume bottles, dresses, furniture and jewelry, created designs for fabrics and sketches of murals for homes.
His lifestyle was not as refined as his drawings – his villa exquisite interiors were admired by dozens of curious thanks to the generous hospitality of the host, who offered a delicious dinner in the Russian style, which suited Prince Nikolai Urusov – long companion, a close friend of Erte and permanent manager, with whom they lived under the same roof for almost two decades.
Hollywood costume designer described the visit to Erte in 1918: “Villa of Erte was on top of a hill above the casino “Monte Carlo” and the surrounding gardens. At the station a cab was waiting for me. Lackey dressed in a green coat, white striped with black satin sleeves, opened my door to the villa. I was shown a huge, bright room where the only furniture was a large desk and chair, staged in the heart of black-and- white checkerboard marble floor. The walls were hung with gray- white striped curtains that hung very high. Erte entered. He was dressed in pajamas wide trimmed with ermine. Huge Persian cat, arching her back, slipped between the legs of the logged … ” Want to see my sketches? ” – asked Erte and going to the wall, pulled the cord parted gray- white curtains, opened hundreds of drawings under, hung in strict rows. It seemed to me that never existed more prolific and more sophisticated artist than this little Russian, drawing days and nights exotic women with elongated eyes, writhing under the weight of fur, feathers, birds of paradise and pearls … ”
Erte violent fantasy made him indispensable in the medium of European aristocrats, the most fashionable entertainment of whom at the time were luxury masquerades. Erte not only designed costumes and scenery for the most famous organizers of such amusements – for example, for the Count de Beaumont or illustrious for socialite Marquise Luisa Casati, but also posed as a director and choreographer of the entire procession and pantomime “masks” in costumes of his work, achieving maximum effect. For example, for a charity masker July 3, 1924, held at the Paris Opera, Erte created for Marquise Casati and her friends, among whom were the Spanish prince Louis, the famous fashion photographer Baron Adolph de Meyer and Prince Urusov – a scenario solemn procession, which had to lead two dozen torchbearers and close Marquis in costume of Countess of Castiglione, mistress of Napoleon III, of black tulle with diamonds. Erte loved such orders – because they fully allowed him to show the wealth of his unrestrained imagination. “Imagination, – he said – the main thing in my work. All I did in art – imagination. And I’ve always had one ideal, one model – a dance move”.
Erte continued to work for the stage. In the 1920s he designed several dance numbers for the company of the great ballerina Anna Pavlova (eg, “Divertimento, “Seasons”, “Gavotte”), performances of the ballet troupe of Monte Carlo and opera productions in Chicago. He repeatedly made the scenography for the music-hall “Folies Berger” and its main star – famous exotic dancer “chocolate” Josephine Baker, famous for her outfit of a bunch of bananas for the Lido cabaret, Bal Ta Baren and Ba -ta- clan, London opera and Paris Grand opera. All performances were a great success. When in 1923 Erte with great difficulty – he had to rouse several charities – took from Bolshevik Russia his parents, Admiral Tyrtov admitted: “You were right, going to Paris!”
In 1922, in Monte Carlo, where Erte visited Princess Tenisheva he met with Sergei Diaghilev, who offered the young artist to collaborate. Erte gladly accepted – to work with Diaghilev was an honor for any artist. He drew two sketches – but the next day he was offered a much more lucrative contract to work in the U.S.. Confused Erte described a proposal to Diaghilev – and he said: “Never give up your money. I myself never refuse”. So Erte accepted the American offer.
Between the two world wars, Erte worked very hard in America. He is mainly famous as the creator of sumptuous costumes for pop productions – no wonder journalists nicknamed him the “King of music hall”: in New York Erte worked with almost all the famous Broadway revues, from «Scandals» by George White (curtain and costumes for those productions are now in the New York Museum of Contemporary Art) to renowned “Ziegfeld girls” – the legendary Broadway impresario troupe. His suits were a great success with the American “stars” – because in sketches Erte successfully combined refined luxury of Parisian high fashion and theatricality of Parisian cabaret, fantastic lines and rich colors of “Russian Seasons”. Clothes on sketches by Erte were gladly worn by the most famous American film actress of the time – Norma Shearer, Terry Ellis, Marion Davis, Claudette Colbert, Paulette Duval, Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, Pauline Stark and many others. At the invitation of Louis B. Mayer, the owner of the studio MGM, in 1925-26 Erte created costumes for several films, including “Ben-Hur”, “La Boheme”, “Time, The Comedian” and “Madness dance”, ” Mystery” by Tod Browning, and others.
His fashion sense was unique. In 1921 Erte first introduced dress with asymmetrical neckline – now without this fashion is unimaginable. In 1929, creating sketches to another setting, chosen for men’s suits velvet, silk and brocade – tissue, while unthinkable for men’s fashion, although quite common in the eighteenth century. The costumes were so successful that since even the most conservative fashion houses use these materials for sewing male models.
Somewhat later, just in passing, Erte invented style “unisex”, then no one called it so. His model, which had the same line for both men and women enjoyed great popularity among the young and trendy, and his tracksuits made a breakthrough in fashion, overcoming the gap between completely uncomfortable, but to follow the latest fashion trends, “sports clothing”, which were convenient. His models featured the apparent simplicity of cut, which nevertheless looked expensive and elegant, showing a natural plastic of body and understated elegance of textile, stressed with precious finishes, exquisite ornaments and luxurious accessories.
Back in the thirties in Paris – at the height of fame, on the crest of financial success – Erte settled in Boulogne, expensive Paris suburb where lived next door, for example, the Prince and Princess Yusupov, the creators of fashion house “Irfe” or the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – Former king of England Edward VIII and his wife Wallis Simpson. In his apartment Erte created splendid interiors in the same art deco style, where exquisite lines and restraint colors only emphasized exotic trinkets, antique furniture, and vases with rare flowers. Gray- white- black range of interiors only occasionally diluted with red spots, and on mirrors painted butterflies herself Elsa Schiaparelli. A huge aquarium wall separated the hall from the office, Erte glasses were inscribed with autographs of celebrities: the first one there left imprints of its paws was cat Micmac – favorite of Erte.
In April 1933, died Prince Urusov: His death was worthy of poets of decadence – he showed to a young gardener, how to prune roses, and cut himself with a thorn. After a few days he died of blood poisoning. For Erte it was a real tragedy – with Urusov were associated almost twenty years, the best years of his life. “My world seemed to be crumbling around me – Erte wrote in his memoirs – and I lost the last representative of a vanished era.”
During the Second World War Erte continued to work for the stage, making out performances in French and American theaters. Interest to his drawings almost disappeared – in the difficult war years, the subtle beauty of graphics by Erte looked charming anachronism, and after the war, captured the public’s interest by new trends. However, Erte remained true to himself – as he claimed, in true beauty there are always connoisseurs, and his creativity will always be fans.
In the sixties, he became interested in a new genre for himself – sculpture. Initially Erte created abstract works in metal. The first series was called “Picturesque form” , it consisted of “Freedom”, “The Inner Life”, “Shadows and light” and others – made of various metals, with the addition of wood, enamel and glass, painted in oils, these sculptures by Erte’s own words, “is not a purely abstract – they expressed emotion, thought, the state”. He then proceeded to manufacture bronzes in the ancient technique of “lost wax”. Erte embodied in the metal his costumes and early graphic works.
His exquisite thin girls, similar to the famous beauties of the past, friends and girlfriends of Erte are visible embodiment of grace and sensuality. Achieving fidelity in metal textures of fabrics, Erte experimented with techniques and materials. In these same techniques he created a series of jewelry – for example, the famous necklace “Fox”, made in the form of a fox head of gold and precious stones.
In the early sixties not many remembered of Erte, although he was still in demand as a set designer: from 1950 to ’58 Erte works for the famous Parisian cabaret La Nouvelle Eve, in 1960, draws the staging of “Phaedra”, and in 1970-72 he created the sets and costumes for the show in Paris Roland Petit Casino. He designed mansions and country villas of the rich and aristocratic, mostly those who remembered his fame thirty years ago – for the American millionaire Isabella Estorich Erte designed villa on the island of Barbados, for Elena Martini, famous cabaret hostess of “Rasputin”, Russian-born – house in Normandy.
And then something happened that you could find a miracle – already advanced in years Erte was able to achieve the revival of his career. In the late sixties – early seventies of the last century revived interest in the art of 20-30s, and this wave of popularity reached Erte – practically the only of the famous artists of the time, who was not only still alive, but has retained the creative Activity.
Interest in him in those years seemed to be even higher than before – a book about Erte albums and his work often took in bookstores whole regiments. In 1975 he published a book of memoirs “The things that I remember”. In it, he admitted: “I’m disgusted wear the same dress even two days in a row and eat the same food. I’ve always loved to travel, because it decorates life. Monotony creates boredom, and I was never bored in my life”.
Until recent years, Erte remained consistently elegant, fit, exquisitely dressed. He always impeccably stitched classic costumes he wore, in the words of one journalist, “with a unique grace with which wild cat wears his fur”, supplemented with bright original accessories made by his own sketches. Even in later years he loved decorated with bright prints shirts, colorful scarves, original jersey and, of course, the shoes from the best masters.
In April 1990, Erte with friends was on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There he suddenly fell ill – on a private plane he was taken to a hospital in Paris, but despite the best efforts of doctors, in three weeks – April 21 – Erte died. Invitations to his funeral in advance Erte designed himself – they were sent to the list compiled by them, and all the details of the ceremony were also thought to him in advance. Even luxury coffin was carried by his own sketch: mahogany trimmed with floral wreaths in art deco style. His body rests on the Bois de cemetery, next to his parents.
Father of Art Deco Russian born designer Erte