Erté (1892-1990) whose multi-disciplinary works capture the art deco period was a Russian-born French artist and designer whose given name was Roman Petrovich Tyrtov anglicized to Romain de Tirtoff. His distinguished family roots trace back to 1548 and a Tartar Khan named Tyrtov. His father, Pyotr Ivanovich Tyrtov, served as an admiral in the Russian Fleet. He came to call himself Erté after the French pronunciation of his initials (Air-Tay).
He is perhaps most famous for his elegant fashion designs that captured the essence of the art deco period. One of his earliest successes was designing apparel for the French dancer Gaby Deslys.
His delicate figures and sophisticated, glamorous designs are instantly recognizable and his ideas and art still influence fashion in the 21st century.
Erté’s costumes, program designs, and sets were featured in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923, many productions of the Folies Bergère, Bal Tabarin, Théâtre Fémina, Le Lido and George White's Scandals. On Broadway, the celebrated French chanteuse Irène Bordoni wore Erté designs.
By far, his best-known image is Symphony in Black, depicting a somewhat stylized, tall, slender woman draped in black holding a thin black dog on a leash. This influential image has been reproduced and copied countless times.
Erté continued working throughout his life, designing revues, ballets, and operas. He had a major rejuvenation and interest in his career during the 1960s with the Art Deco revival. Subsequently, he branched out into the realm of limited edition prints, bronzes, and wearable art.
Two years before his death, Erté created seven limited edition bottle designs for Courvoisier to show the different stages of the cognac-making process from distillation to maturation. In 2008, the eighth and final of the remaining Erté-designed Courvoisier bottles, containing Grande Champagne cognac dating back to 1892, was released and sold for $10,000 apiece.
His work can be found in the collections of several well-known museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a sizable collection of work by Erté is on display at Museum 1999 in Tokyo.
Over the years 1910–12, he moved to Paris to pursue a career as a designer. In Paris he lived with Prince Nicolas Ouroussoff until the prince's death in 1933. The decision to move to Paris was made despite strong objections from his father who wanted Romain to continue the family tradition and become a naval officer. He assumed his pseudonym. Erté, to avoid disgracing the family.
In Paris, he worked for Paul Poiret from 1913 to 1914. In 1915, he secured his first substantial contract with Harper's Bazaar magazine and launched the illustrious career that included designing costumes and stage sets. Between 1915 and 1937, Erté designed over 200 covers for Harper's Bazaar, and his illustrations also appeared in publications that included the Illustrated London News, Cosmopolitan, Ladies' Home Journal, and Vogue.
Erté’s art to wear jewelry became popular after a 1974 when both Jack Solomon (of Solomon Brothers), and his wife Caroline visited an Erté exhibition. While Solomon was aware of the artist’s contribution to Art Deco in the 1920s, he’d never seen the work in person. Amazed by the designer’s originality and style, Solomon went to Paris to meet him personally. This is how the cooperation between Erté and the Circle of Fine Arts was born.
Jack Solomon often recalled Erté’s desire to create jewelry. The designer had ideas of what would constitute perfect adornment. He considered contemporary jewels mediocre and tawdry and dreamed of creating art that could and should be worn every day.
He conceived a collection rich in details and lines that he would call, “Art to Wear.” Realizing that the fulfillment of his conception required great craftsmanship, he began his association with Solomon who was looking for jewelers in Paris, Milan, Amsterdam, London, and Tel Aviv. After analyzing the sketches and drawings, the owners of well-known workshops insisted that it was impossible to realize Erté’s jewelry in only amounts of 50 to 200 copies.
Fortunately Jack met Natalie Kane O’Keiff, who had her own workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She had great experience in jewelry making and acquaintances with various jewelers in southeast America. She believed that the implementation of Erté’s projects was possible only if they would be willing to prepare it in her own workshop.
In only a year, three prototypes were realized of which Erté approved. This was the beginning of a cooperation that lasted about 10 years. Technical drawings in accordance with Erté’s sketches were prepared, corrected and supplemented by the artist. After he gave his approval, an enlarged copy of a piece was made. Then the modelling began.
Erté loved stones of unusual shape, cut or color. The materials always had to be exactly what he was looking for: emeralds and blue topaz from Brazil, rubies from Thailand, coral from Japan. The team elaborated each piece according to the designer’s instructions. When the prototypes were made, Natalie Kane went to Paris or to Barbados to personally show the designer the project and get his approval for further work.
The first jewelry pieces achieved great success. All the jewelry was released in limited editions, numbered and signed by the Circle of Fine Arts and ERTÈ. The marking was located on either side of the jewelry. In total, 328 designs, in different versions, were produced.
One example is the Necklace/Brooch Sophistication made in white and yellow gold, black onyx, and mother of pearl. The necklace can be worn without the central element which can become a brooch. The piece seems like sharp broken ice. This motif first occurred in the costume “Arctic Sea”, which Erté drew in 1925 for the Broadway revue “George White’s Scandals.”
The theme of the sea often occurs in Erté’s jewelry. The sea was the designer’s favorite place since his childhood and, of course, it is no coincidence since Erté’s father was not only a fleet admiral but also the head of the Marine Engineering School.
The harmony of form and color found in nature always interested Erté. His Alouette ring is a lark at dawn, where a star-studded scattering of diamonds and mother-of-pearl moon reveal a golden sun and blue sky. It is fashioned in gold, diamonds, mother of pearl, and topaz. His Rainbow in Blossom Necklace is crafted in gold, diamonds, and mother of pearl with matching Rainbow in blossom Earrings Fleurs made with gold, diamonds, and pearls.
The designer drew ideas and inspiration from everything that surrounded him. One of the most common themes in his jewelry was animals and especially birds. His Peacock ring resembles a peacock’s tail feather.
Erté was also attracted to Oriental cultures and his art blended the colorfulness of Egyptian ornaments and Persian motifs. His style was inspired by exotic oriental influences with its flickering colors, stones, feathers and furs and those elements are reflected in his jewelry.
His love of Egyptian culture resonated with Art Deco geometry. The necklace, The Nile, resembles the wings of a bird and an inverted fan; a frequently encountered image in the artist’s adornments.
The love theme can be seen through the entirety of the designer’s work. His Beloved Brooch/Pendant is crafted in silver, lapis lazuli, and mother of pearl.
The designer had always been attracted by ancient Greek culture and graphic Greek vases. The design of his jewelry is also full of allegorical fantasies and mythological motifs. His Necklace Aurora is made in gold, silver, diamonds, and mother of pearl while his Aventurine Necklace Is comprised of gold, diamonds, black onyx, and mother of pearl.
One of Erté’s most famous works was the Alphabet series. Admiring the strength and the beauty of a human body, the artist created his own series of letters, which became one of the most popular pieces of graphic art he ever realized. The jewelry was released in two series: simple figures and letters that lay on black onyx.
In January 2020, JCK Online reported that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art store began offering a collection celebrating the distinctive work of Erté who is often referred to as the father of Art Deco.
Standouts include a statement necklace and a pair of earrings inspired by an Erté original openwork fan design for Zizi Jeanmaire, a French ballet dancer who was also the artist’s great friend. Of note are Erté Zizi earrings, $75; Erté Zizi statement necklace, $225; and Erté drop earrings, $75, all in satin-finish 18k gold–plated metal and Swarovski crystals
Also of note is a pin inspired by the artist’s design for the opening curtain of the 1927 Broadway musical Manhattan Mary.
Erté’s New York Times obituary noted that he was known for his ability to turn his talent in many directions. He accepted commissions to design jewelry, lamps, furniture and interior decor.
In 1965, he met Eric and Salome Estorick, the founders of Seven Arts Ltd. of New York and London. Seven Arts remained the exclusive agent for Erté's work until his death.
''He was working until just a few weeks ago,'' Mr. Estorick said upon learning of the master’s death. ''He was doing very well. He had made a lot of money over the past 25 years and was building a home in Majorca. He was full of energy until the end.''
In the book published for his 95th birthday, Erté wrote that he preferred variety in his life. ''I loathe wearing the same clothes two days running or eating the same dishes over and over again,'' he wrote. ''I've always loved traveling because it varies the decor of my life. Monotony engenders boredom and I have never been bored in my life.''
A slightly built man with a shock of white hair, he fell ill with kidney problems during a vacation on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. He was flown back to Paris and died at Cochin Hospital.