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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Erté, the Father of Art Deco

November 23, 2010
by Isabel Cowles
Romain de Tirtoff made his way to Paris in 1912 and established himself as the acclaimed fashion illustrator Erté. In addition to producing more than 250 prints for Harper’s Bazaar, Erté worked as a lithographer and painter, and a costume, set and furniture designer. He has been called the “Father of Art Deco” for his influence on art and design in the 20th century.

Erté’s Early Days

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Romain de Tirtoff was born in St. Petersburg on Nov. 23, 1892. His father, an admiral in the Imperial Fleet, always thought his son would join the army, but the boy consistently defied expectations. At the age of 5, his passion for design was apparent when his mother, Natalia Mikhailova, had a dress made based on one of his sketches.

At the age of 20, Romain moved to Paris to pursue his dream of illustration. Once there, he changed his name: the pronunciation of his initials, R.T., sounded like “Erté” when spoken in French.

Erté had early success as an artist working with French fashion designer Paul Poiret. In 1915, just three years after arriving in Paris, he earned a contract as a fashion illustrator at Harper’s Bazaar and created some 250 prints over the next 21 years.

Although Erté contributed original fashion drawings, “it was his spectacular cover art that set him apart. His love of color and his elaborate couture designs put the magazine at the forefront of creative innovation,” Harper’s explains in a tribute to the artist.

Erté’s Notable Accomplishments

Despite his early success, Erté experienced a career lull in the 1940s and 1950s. His work was brought back into focus by the art dealer Eric Estorick, who visited Erté’s studio in 1967 and marveled at the artist’s impressive body of work.

The vibrant social and cultural changes of the 1960s provided an appropriate backdrop for Erté’s lively illustrations. Successful exhibitions in New York and London indicated that the audience for his work was even bigger than anticipated, prompting Erté to create multiples through graphics and bronze sculptures.

Although he was a prolific illustrator and painter, Erté also earned a reputation as an artistic Renaissance man, able to create beauty and style through any medium. Throughout his career, he worked on elaborate stage and costume designs for operas, musicals and ballets in cities across Europe and America.

The New York Times reports that the famous painter only once used oils, “preferring the gouache or tempera medium.” In addition to his illustration, painting and stage design, he took commissions to design jewelry and interior decor, working actively until his death at age 97.

The Rest of the Story

Erté has been called the “Father of Art Deco” for the illustrations and design he created throughout the 20th century. Art Brokerage, an online distributor of his work, characterized his style as “the fusion of the curvilinear designs of Art Nouveau of the 19th Century with the Cubist, Constructivist, and geometrical designs of modernity.” The site offers a gallery of sketches, designs, prints and paintings by the artist, which can be viewed through an interactive slideshow.

Art Deco was an artistic movement that embodied a wide variety of mediums, including painting and illustration, interior design, sculpture and fashion. Evidence of Erté’s influence on a variety of forms is displayed in prestigious museums across the United States and the United Kingdom.

Permanent collections at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art display Erté’s works, as do Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
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