Artist Training – Erté

A Continuing-Education Series from Chalk & Vemilion Fine Arts, Inc.


With the premise that one of the best tools you can have to help you sell art is an understanding of the artist him/herself, as part of this ongoing series we will be offering information about our Chalk & Vermilion published artists. The ability to convey interesting, pertinent information and to create a feeling about the artist adds an element to the level of interest that goes beyond a customer’s initial reaction of “Gee, that’s a pretty picture.”

Erté was one of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century, with a body of work and a history that encompasses paintings, prints, sculpture, theater and costume design, fashion design, graphic design, furniture, and more. The breadth of his skill and interest seems endless, and his technical skill, his capability for innovation, and his devotion to his craft are rarely seen in combination with such stellar achievement in any field.

But you probably know all that. What you don’t know is what a lovable, quirky, devoted, and genuine man he was. A brief bio: he was born in imperial St. Petersburg, Russia, to a family with a long and distinguished Naval history. His name was Romain de Tirtoff, but he adopted the moniker Erté after the French pronunciation of his initials, R.T. Even as a young child, he abhorred the rough games of his schoolmates, and it became quite clear he would not follow in his father’s footsteps – he preferred solitude, quiet, and beautiful things. An early introduction into the legendary Russian cultural scene fed his imagination and exposed him to the very best of everything he loved – theater, pageantry, beauty and refinement.

He left for Paris at age 19, and worked in the famous fashion house of Paul Poiret. From there, he began working for Harper’s Bazaar magazine, a collaboration that lasted for over 21 years. During that time and for many years thereafter, he designed sets and costumes for innumerable operas, stage shows, and films. In the late sixties, the entire collection of work shown at an exhibition in New York was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of New York – an unprecedented acquisition - and as he entered his eighties and then nineties, he began his work in graphics and bronze sculpture.

But his true personality comes through in his own words and in the sentiments that others have expressed about him. I’ll let them do the talking:

“I left home because I wanted to be free. My family was in the navy for over 200 years, since Peter the Great. My father was an admiral, but when I finished my studies, he asked me what I wanted as a congratulatory present, and I said ‘a passport’. To live in Paris and to be free. Even then, freedom was the main thing for me, that and enjoying my work. It must be terribly depressing to work at something and to be always looking at the clock.” (Erté)

“He had such boundless energy and enthusiasm that one tended to forget how old he was,” said David Rogath (owner of Chalk & Vermilion, who met Erté when he was already in his seventies). “I took him once to watch Nureyev dancing in Le Sacre du Printemps, and he told me he had enjoyed it more when he saw it for the first time with Nijinsky in 1919”. And he felt that Mata Hari, for whom he had designed costumes in Paris, couldn’t have been much of a spy because “she gossiped all the time.”

An art dealer who also met Erté late in his life, remembers him not only as “a charming old-world raconteur with an infectious joie de vivre,” but as a warm friend who doted on the man’s children, whom he enjoyed taking to restaurants and museums.

All his life, Erté was a fashion peacock, who thought nothing of wearing plum-colored suits with butterfly ties when he went out to dinner. He railed against the “boring, unimaginative” restrictions of men’s dress – why should women have all the fun and the men look little better than well-dressed waiters? Once, at the Paris Opera Ball in 1926, he was said to have shown up in a gold lame toreador suit and a cape lined with fresh red roses, which he scattered to members of the audience as he approached his seat.

He loved to travel, and claimed “I have a nomadic soul. When I was a child my governess once told me to beware of gypsies, for they kidnapped little children and took them along on their eternal travels. My reaction was ‘How marvelous! That way I shall travel all my life!’”

“The Latest Fashion! What a cruel tyrant! I forces fat women and thin women to wear the same style; an older woman must dress like a young girl. As it is, the American woman goes into a shop and sees a dress which will be bought by twenty million other women; she tries it on and the salesgirl, anxious to make the sale, tells her how well she looks; alas this is not always the case…The majority of women are always tempted to wear something they see on another woman. It does not occur to them that women differ enormously, and that what suits one woman to perfection will look quite dreadful on another…”

Erté was a small, slight man, with a soft voice and gentleman’s bearing, but nonetheless a giant in the art world. His impact and influence in the theater and fashion world and in art are enormous, and his work remains a cornerstone of the Art Deco movement.

Erté’s life story is detailed in his fascinating autobiography, “Erté – Things I Remember” (1975), and in a biography, “Erté”, by Charles Spencer (1970), to name just two books about him. Besides being wonderfully entertaining to read, they illustrate the times during which Erté lived, and highlight his many accomplishments, each made more illustrious given the context in which they were achieved. Highly recommended reading!

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