The Early Days of Erte’
Erte’ was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on November 23, 1892 as Romain de Tirtoff. He was a child prone to fantasy and would spend hours and hours immersed in books from his father’s library. Erte’ was fascinated by the ballet and opera at a young age, and his beautiful and stylish mother quite likely had a large influence on his later career. Erte’s father was an admiral in the Imperial Fleet and hoped his son would follow suit, but the young boy resisted. Though his father considered a career in fashion to be a disgrace for a young man, when he was 20, Erte’ moved to Paris to pursue his dream of design and illustration. Erte’ reminisced in his later years that “Of all the members of my family, it was my father who dominated my thoughts at this time. What a trial I must have been to him! Once I had staged my first rebellion against those wooden soldiers, there was no let up.”
Let the Designs Begin
After his move to Paris, it didn’t take long for Erte’ to become a well-known designer who created fashion and costume designs as well as illustrations for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He began designing costumes for both the theater and the stage during this time in his life; the majority of the women Erte’ designed for were tall, slender and somewhat austere, with faces which seem so sophisticated as to be almost cold. Prior to Erte’s influence women were stuck in Victorian clothing with corsets and voluminous skirts, however he found many ways to emphasize the female form. The dresses Erte’ designed as costumes were luxurious, often dripping with jewels and pearls; his first theatrical designs were fancy dress balls, created for Paul Poiret. Although Erte’ tended to use color somewhat sparingly, it was nevertheless used quite brilliantly in his designs, oftentimes stark black backgrounds printed with red, white, gold or blue, each ensuring it became a work of art in its own right.
While a serious student of costume history, who was faithful to the style of the period, Erte’ nevertheless left his stamp of originality on every costume he designed. Although censorship was incredibly strict in the early Hollywood days, Erte’ managed to design costumes which were sexy, gorgeous and incredibly feminine at the same time. Erte’ designed costumes for some of the most beautiful and successful actresses of the time, most notably Josephine Baker, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies and Anna Pavlova–many of these creations remain unmatched to this day. Knowing how critical a designer’s participation is to the future success of the costumes, Erte’ made sure he was involved in every single detail. Throughout his career he was a meticulous designer, spending incalculable hours working on his exacting sketches. For his costumes, very fine lines were painted rather than drawn, and where he painstakingly applied minute dots of paint in multiple layers, pearls and jewels emerged. Although Erte’ designed costumes for the films Ben-Hur, The Comedian, Time, Dance Madness, La boheme and The Mystic, he had little patience for the necessary pandering to the egos of Hollywood’s stars—something Edith Head, however, did masterfully.
Known as the Father of Art Deco, Erte’ defined Art Deco as “a fusion of the curvilinear designs of Art Nouveau of the 19th Century with the Cubist, Constructivist and geometrical designs of modernity.” In his biography Erte’ wrote that it was the duty of every human being to “make himself as attractive as possible,” and that “not many of us are born beautiful.” Erte’ was well-known for his belief that clothes could transform people into things of beauty or things of ugliness, and glamor was definitely the signature of his art. Perhaps Erte’s most well-known image is called Symphony in Black, and depicts a tall, slender woman draped in black, holding a thin black dog on a leash. A book about his career entitled Erte’ at Ninety details the man who lived in a home with no interior lighting along with his two beloved cats and was heard to say “The cat is a solitary animal, very independent, very quiet by nature…I cannot stand people visiting me when I am indisposed. I want to be left alone.” The Father of Art Deco is considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, with a near-limitless imagination and a career spanning nearly a century.