Erté

Symphony in Black

Romain de Tirtoff (1892 – 1990) was a Russian-born French artist and designer known by the pseudonym Erté [er-tey], the French pronunciation of his initials, R.T. He was a diversely talented 20th-century artist and designer who flourished in an array of fields, including fashion, jewellery, graphic arts, costume and set design for film, theater, and opera, and interior decor.

Tirtoff was born in Saint Petersburg, to a distinguished family with roots tracing back to 1548. In 1910, Romain moved to Paris to pursue a career as a designer. He made this decision despite strong objections from his father, who wanted him to continue the family tradition and become a naval officer. Romain assumed his pseudonym to avoid disgracing the family.

He worked for Paul Poiret from 1913-1914. In 1915, he secured his first substantial contract with ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ magazine, and thus launched an illustrious career that included designing costumes and stage sets. Between 1915–1937, Erte designed over 200 covers for ‘Harper’s Bazaar,’ and his illustrations would also appear in such publications as ‘Illustrated London News,’ ‘Cosmopolitan,’ ‘Ladies’ Home Journal,’ and ‘Vogue.’

Erté is perhaps most famous for his elegant fashion designs which capture the art deco period in which he worked. One of his earliest successes was designing apparel for the French dancer Gaby Deslys who died in 1920. His delicate figures and sophisticated, glamorous designs are instantly recognizable, and his ideas and art still influence fashion into the 21st century. His costumes, program designs, and sets were featured in the ‘Ziegfeld Follies’ of 1923. On Broadway, the celebrated French chanteuse Irène Bordoni wore Erté’s designs.

In 1925, Louis B. Mayer brought him to Hollywood to design sets and costumes for the silent film ‘Paris.’ There were many script problems, so Erté was given other assignments to keep him busy. Hence, he designed for such films as ‘Ben-Hur,’ ‘The Mystic,’ and ‘Dance Madness.’ By far, his best known image is ‘Symphony in Black,’ depicting a tall, slender woman draped in black holding a thin black dog on a leash. The influential image has been reproduced and copied countless times.

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