How Erté Shaped Art Deco Design and Style (Invaluable)

Original article here.

Erte, “Queen of the Night” (detail), 1987. Sold for $2,375 via Freeman’s (April 2015).

Much of what we recognize today as Art Deco design was crafted by Erté through his strong and timeless aesthetic. Spanning many areas of visual culture, including illustrations for fashion magazines, costumes for opera and ballet, and sculpture and set design for theater, Erté’s signature style set the tone for the modern era.

Romain de Tirtoff

Born Romain de Tirtoff in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892, Erté broke free from the conventions of his aristocratic family and moved to Paris in 1910 to follow his ambitions as an artist.

After a couple of years, his breakthrough, and arguably his biggest influence, was brief collaboration with famed Parisian couturier Paul Poiret, who renamed him “Erté” (the French pronunciation of his initials). This set Erté’s trajectory into the fashion world and before long, he was selling illustrations to Paris fashion houses and magazines. World War I and the ensuing economic decline in Europe subsequently caused Erté to focus his attentions to the American market and led him to secure a long-term contract with Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1915.

Erte, design for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, 1935. Sold for £6,545 via Sotheby’s (May 2005).

His exuberant style came into its own in the French theater world, where for 35 years, he designed the costumes and sets for esteemed productions such as Folies-Bergere in Paris and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923, and for a brief period worked on several Hollywood silent films.

Working right up until his death in 1990, Erté produced some 22,000 designs during his career, applying his talents to everything from lighting and furnishings, accessories and jewelry. He eventually branched out into the realm of limited edition prints, bronzes, and wearable art and had his work had a major revival during the 1960s with the Art Deco revival. Erté’s final swansong was in the 1980s when he completed 100 new designs for a Glyndebourne opera production.

Erté Art

The impact of Erté’s contributions to the principles of contemporary fashion, design, and theater, and setting the visual pace within the 20th century, cannot be underestimated. His work set the precedent for the interconnection of art and culture. Erte art majestically encapsulates the taste and aesthetic of the time, with influences drawn from diverse sources such as Russian iconography, Byzantine mosaics, Greek pottery and Indian and Egyptian art.

Admired by celebrities of the time and emulated by the everyday woman, he is one of few artists who has had significant influence over cultural trends. Erté introduced the image of a stylized body draped in beads and furs, which would define and capture the essence of a generation: spectacle, exoticism, and fantasy.

1. Erte Fashion Illustrations

Erté introduced a sense of theatricality into Art Deco fashion, making popular velvet evening wraps with Chinese sleeves and gold embroidery, and long gowns covered in crystal and pearls. His silhouettes, asymmetrical hemlines, eye for unisex clothing, use of metals in fashion, and tailored professional-wear, influenced fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent in his 1976 Ballets Russes collection, Oscar de la Renta’s signature embellishments and draping, and the décor of London’s famous fashion emporium Biba, among others.

Erte, “‘L`Inoubliable Nuit, No. 45’,” 1917. Sold for $1,800 via Shapiro Auctions (June 2014).

It is primarily through his contribution to Harper’s Bazaar magazine that Erté became known within the fashion and publishing world, changing the trajectory of fashion illustration. Erté worked for the publication for 22 years and designed more than 240 magazine covers, where he oversaw the magazine’s art direction. Harper’s Bazaar was the perfect medium to reflect the newfound freedom and love of spectacle in early-20th century American society. He portrayed the modern woman in scenes of everyday life, donning exuberant and vibrant colors and textiles, thus putting a new spin on what is perceived as glamorous.

The sense of movement and his painstakingly detailed work, as seen in Sports d’Hiver (pictured below), where Erté drew each individual dot of the snow by hand, is what makes these pieces “outstanding works of graphic art” and “quintessential art deco masterworks,” according to Christine von der Linn, a specialist at Swann Auction Galleries.

Erte, “Sports d’Hiver.” Cover illustration for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Sold for $8,125 via Swann Auction Galleries (May 2017).

However, most of Erté’s surviving original cover designs for Harper’s Bazaar remain in private collections, therefore, is quite rare to find them at auction. His reproductions from the 1990s as serigraphs or the original Harper’s Bazaar magazines are more affordable and easier pieces to find.

Among the many projects he took up within fashion are the design illustrations and prints Erté created for New York shoe manufacturer Herman Delmanare and the designs for premier New York store Henri Bendel and B. Altman & Co.

2. Erte Jewelry

Erté’s ideas transcended a variety of media, and he even experimented as a jewelry-maker. Though Erte jewelry is less common at auction, they reflect the same principles and aesthetics established in Erte fashion illustrations.

A set of sapphire, sterling silver and gold jewels by ErtŽe, from the limited edition “Nile” collection. Sold for CAD4000 via Dupuis Auctions (June 2018).

Erté started designing jewelry in 1979 for the Circle of Fine Art (CFA) with great success. Together, they produced a total of 328 limited edition designs. Based on the artist’s intricate style and detailed designs, his jewelry is known as Erte “Art To Wear.” He would also draw inspiration from the nautical world (his most recurring and favorite theme), animals, birds (the peacock being his favorite), and Egyptian culture, amongst other sources. From rings to earrings and pendants, he would design each collection under a different theme, such as “Fantasy,” “La Mer,” “Tempest,” or the “The Nile.” Erté’s last “Art to Wear” designs were for a series of numerals in gold. Also keep an eye out for jewelry design sketches, which prove to be highly collectible.

3. Erte Costume and Set Design

During the 1920s and 1930s, Erté designed sets and costumes for a great variety of Broadway theater productions. His innovations in costume design range from performers adorned with large, plumed headdresses, pearls and embroidered trains, and costumes that evoke tableaux vivants. Erté was further set apart from contemporary theater designers by the quality and detail of his finished designs.

Erte, Costume Design: Blue Robe. Via Sotheby’s (February 2018).

Erté’s designs, silhouettes and movement influenced dancers of all genres and styles, inspiring countless imitations. Erte artwork also influenced future costume designers such as American designer Adrian Adolph Greenberg, better known as “Adrian,” and best known for his work in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz.

His first introduction to the film industry was in designing sets and costumes for Hollywood director Louis B. Mayer, such as the 1925 film Ben Hur. However, his relationship with Hollywood ended fairly quickly, partly due to the fact that Erté’s designs did not translate well into practical costumes. Not fitting within the film industry, Erté moved onto industrial design, conceptualizing utilitarian objects and domestic interiors.

Erte, “Cosi Fan Tutte-Décor of the 4th act,” 1947. Sold for €3,640 via Artcurial (May 2015).

Erté’s highly detailed gouaches played a crucial role in his legacy and ensured the long-term success of the artist. This could be due to the fact that many of his costume and set designs have not survived and it is the gouaches that were preserved by Erté that still allow for a comprehensive overview of his achievements today.

4. Erte Bronze

From the 1970s, utilising the revival of his work, Erté reproduced many of his gouache artworks through serigraphs and lithographs as a way to reach more audiences. In 1980, he produced a series of bronze sculptures, also based on the characters and costumes of his designs. Erté believed that these bronze sculptures allowed him to translate his ideas to an extent that was not possible on the stage or on paper. Erte’s ultimate goal was for these sculptures to become objects of beauty and desire.

Erté, Cold Painted Bronze Sculpture: “Ready for the Ball,” late 20th century. Sold for $1800 via Heritage Auctions (May 2017).

In the 1960s Erte’s career experienced a renaissance, becoming again the reference for a new generation. In addition to his popularity as an artist, it is still evident how Erté’s art has had an effect on almost all aspects of visual culture, both by defining the Art Deco aesthetic and remaining timeless to this day. Erté’s ability to create worlds immersed with glamour, spectacle and fantasy still remains relevant in the 21st century, speaking to the sensibility of a cross-cultural era.

Hallmarks of Erté Art (& How to Spot a Counterfeit)

To better understand the hallmarks of Erté art, and the defining characteristics that collectors should look for, we sat down with Ray Perman, specialist in Erté art at London’s Grosvenor Gallery. Here are his recommendations.

1. Limited Edition Prints

  • Check publications. Erté produced 469 limited editions over the span of 30 years, which are fully recorded in three publications, Erté at Ninety: The Complete Graphics, Erté at Ninety-Five: The Complete New Graphics, and Erté: The Last Works: Graphics / Sculpture.
  • Know the hallmarks of his late works. Later works were produced with embossing and hot foil-stamping, but there are no known fakes of these late editions as the process is too expensive to be viable. The earlier serigraphs and lithographs are printed on high quality Arches paper.
  • Check for blind stamps, signatures, and certificates. All editions have a blind stamp of the publisher and the signature of the artist. A certificate was provided for each print. Potential buyers should ask for this and the provenance of the work.
  • Understand print type and edition size. A number of book and calendar illustrations are often offered as original prints, but these can be easily identified because of the quality, size, and lack of edition number.

2. Sculpture

  • Check publications. Erté produced 146 bronze editions. All are recorded in Erté: The Last Works: Graphics / Sculpture.
  • Look for a foundry stamp. All bronzes bear a foundry stamp, edition number and the signature of the artist. There are no known fakes of Erte’s original sculptures as the cost of reproduction is high and any cast from an original sculpture would be of different dimensions.
  • Understand the difference between Erte and Jules Erte. There have been a number of sculptures offered mastering as Erté, and there are also works produced by a different artist, Jules Erte, that can be confused for the work of Romain de Tirtoff. However, the difference in image and style is easy to detect.

Detail of stamp on an Erte bronze.

3. Original Works

  • Understand the artist’s preferred medium. All known works, with one exception, are pen and ink for early fashion drawings and gouache on paper for theater, Revue and Harper’s Bazaar covers.
  • Look for numbers and stamps on works on paper. Erté kept a record of all his original works, which is unusual for an artist. Each gouache or drawing has a unique number and brief description on the back, and is also stamped “Composition Originale.” The number is noted in the written records along with details of the production and the name of the person who commissioned the work. Fakes can be determined by reference to the records and examination of the work.

About Fiona McKay & Xenia Capacete

Fiona and Xenia are fashion curators and exhibit makers, and founders of White Line Projects, a curatorial and creative studio based in London. White Line Projects curates, designs, and produces a diverse range of outcomes including exhibitions, installations and digital experiences, and websites for a wide range of clients in the fashion and cultural sectors. Fiona, Xenia, and the team at White Line Projects bring a diverse combination of skills and background experience ranging from visual communications and 3D technologies to architecture, art history, and exhibition design to theater design and performing arts.

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