Almost until the day of his death in 1990 at the advanced age of ninety-seven, Romain de Tirtoff, better known as Erté, was a frequent and much-loved guest of New York City. His visits, which were usually marked by dinners and parties in his honor, were often listed with exclamation marks in the society pages of the New York Times, and an exclusive birthday celebration was hosted by the Circle Gallery in Soho in honor of his ninety-fifth birthday.
Long before visiting the United States, Erté had already established a business relationship with several New York institutions. While he had begun a promising career as a designer in Paris in 1912, World War I and the ensuing economic decline in Europe caused Erté to focus his attentions on the American market, to which he owed much of his initial success. Welcomed as a visionary stylist, he received commissions to design clothing for premier New York stores such as Henri Bendel and B. Altman & Co.
Erté further ensured his status and popularity thanks to the regular fashion reports, personal letters, and cover designs published in Harper's Bazar (fig. 2), which he sent directly from his residences in Monte Carlo and Sèvres. Bound to the magazine through an exclusive contract, Erté quickly became a household name to Harper's readers, often illustrating the latest in "Parisian" style for the American market. Between 1915 and 1936 he contributed to no less than 264 issues of the magazine and designed the covers for 240 of them (fig. 3).
The reputation he built through his work for Harper's Bazar also paved the way for a career on Broadway. After having seen Erté's designs for Les Mers (The Seas) at the Théatre des Ambassadeurs in Paris (fig. 4), George White convinced Erté to design costumes and stage sets for his company, Scandals (fig. 1). During the 1920s and 1930s he designed for a great variety of productions for White and other companies. Similar to his work for Harper's Bazar, Erté's highly detailed gouaches played a crucial role in this process. They were sent to New York for approval, and then to the Parisian workshops that produced the costumes for the American productions. For this purpose, Erté often had copies of his designs made by a team of copyists, whom he had personally trained to reproduce his drawings with great care, so that he could hold onto the originals into which he had poured his heart and soul (fig. 5).
Executed with great care, the designs not only include his ideas for clothing, fabrics, window displays, perfume bottles, posters, jewelry, furniture, interiors, and objets de virtu, but also express much of the elegant lifestyle and setting in which he imagined them to function (fig. 6).
The gouache designs played a crucial role in the long-term success of the artist. While many of his costume and set designs have not survived, the gouaches that were preserved by Erté still allow for a comprehensive overview of his achievements. Both during and after his lifetime, they were featured in numerous exhibitions across the United States, Europe, and Asia. Of great importance among these was the 1966 retrospective exhibition of Art Deco, Les Années 25, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. This exhibition not only firmly placed Erté within the pantheon of Art Deco artists, but inspired a renewed interest in his work, which left him in high demand as a designer until his death in 1990.
Erté's close friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Estorick led to a monographic exhibition of his gouaches organized, in 1967, at the Grosvenor Galleries in London and New York. In his autobiography, Things I Remember, Erté describes his astonishment while walking into the New York venue a day before the opening and finding little red stickers on every piece. The gallery manager proudly informed him that the entire show had just been acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in a joint effort between the Department of Prints and Photographs (now the Department of Drawings and Prints) and The Costume Institute.
To celebrate this acquisition, the Museum hosted an exhibition of the works that Erté described as "the outstanding event of 1968" and left him "deeply moved." Since monographic exhibitions of living artists were not permitted at the time, the show was called Erté and Some of His Contemporaries and included works by other artists such as Léon Bakst (fig. 7), Raoul Dufy, and Natalia Goncharova, some of whom he had worked with in the past, or whose work had inspired his own. To Erté's contentment, the show was seen by "a large number of visitors, and as usual, many enthusiastic young people."
In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the artist's death, a small selection from the designs acquired by the Museum is currently on view in the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Gallery. The selection focuses on the designs Erté created for the New York shoe manufacturer Herman Delman, who founded his company in 1919 with one small shoe store on Madison Avenue. Delman's philosophy was to offer a limited selection of shoes that each stood for comfort and quality, but were also true eye-catchers during a night out on the town. This vision resonated well with what he had thus far seen from Erté in Harper's Bazar, and he approached the artist to create designs for his firm. While the collaboration lasted for several years, only the gouaches appear to have survived (figs. 8, 9).
The vast collection of the Museum's Costume Institute, however, includes other examples of Delman shoes from the period, which allow us to catch a glimpse of the uniqueness and modernity that characterized fashionable shoe design during the 1930s.
Drawings and Prints: Selections from the Permanent Collection, on view June 23–September 28, 2015