The height of Ert's career was in the 1930s: His designs, especially dancers and "decadent," luxurious and subtly erotic fashion images, became icons of the "Art Deco" style. A prolific artist and designer, Ert created 240 Harper's Bazaar covers (1917 to 1937), designed sets and costumes for countless theater, cabaret, music hall and film productions, and, later in his career, shifted to seriagraphs, sculpture, and jewelry.
Images created by Ert influenced dance costuming, both directly through his own designs, and indirectly by establishing the silhouettes, the "lines," the "dancerly look." His costume ideas have been emulated and echoed by dancers and dance theaters of all genres and styles -- ballet, modern, bellydancers, Las Vegas showgirls and drag queens.
Ert was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892. His father Pyotr Ivanovich Tyrtov was an Admiral of the Russian Imperial Fleet and the Director of the Naval Engineering School; he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become a marine officer. When Ert was 6 he drew a sketch...of an evening gown. His mother was so impressed with it that she had a seamstress create the gown from the sketch.
"My mother was extremely beautiful, " wrote Ert in his memoir, "with blue-black hair worn in a smooth chignon which contrasted with her white skin. I shall always remember one night when I was quite young; she had come to my room to give me a goodnight kiss before going to a ball. She wore a dress of black chantilly lace over pink taffeta; around her decolletage was a garland of real roses. Perhaps this was the beginning of my love for all things connected with beautiful clothes and elegance."
Even though his design debut occurred in his own family, Ert's conservative aristocratic parents perceived his art career as a disgrace, and as the artist turned 20, he moved to Paris (1912) and assumed the pseudonym "Ert" (Russian/French pronunciation of his initials "RT") to make sure that his life in the bohemian and gay demimonde did not compromise his family. His real name is also often spelled in a French manner, "Romain de Tirtoff."
In Paris Ert fell in love with fashion and costuming design, and signed a contract with the famous Parisian couturier Paul Poiret who drew inspiration from Leon Bakst's designs for Diaghilev's Ballets Russe. Some of Erte's earliest costume designs were created in 1913 for 'Le Minaret' featuring one of the earliest "belly dancer" showgirls - Mata Hari. It was common in that era for fashion houses to outfit stars of theater and opera. The Mata Hari costumes brought Ert notoriety and helped to establish his career.
Ert's theatrical costume designs reflected the spirit of lavish spectacle and indulgence in escapism typical of the era of "decadence." Interestingly, Ert actually wore his own designs. "I am very fond of masked balls," he admitted, "and I love dressing myself in costumes created by me and for myself, personally."
Despite the air of exuberant spectacle conveyed by Ert's work, he was not addicted to social life nor to reaping the fruits of fame. "Being alone is vitally important for me and my work., " he said. "I am a solitary person, and this may explain why I have such a great love of cats. Cats and I are very much alike. The cat is a solitary animal, independent and quiet by nature. Like cats who hide themselves away when ill, I dislike people visiting me when I am indisposed. I want to be left alone."
And contrary to the images of decadence he created, Ert adhered to a strict personal discipline of work and moderate physical esercise which certainly contributed to his incredible productivity and longevity. In his words, "I get up late in the morning. When I wake up I exercise for fifteen minutes before breakfast. Sometimes I supplement my morning workout with an additional five minutes before dinner. I have never deviated from this routine, even when I am traveling. "
Ert designed dance costumes for the Ballets Russes, and like many artists of that era pursued exotic silhouettes, rich saturated textures and colors to create his highly-stylized work. He borrowed from the European Orientalist art, Russian icons, Byzantine mosaics, Greek vase paintings, images of Indian and Egyptian art, although when asked about the sources of his inpiration he admitted only to loving the Persian and Indian miniatures and Greek vases he saw at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, as a child. It was these miniatures, he wrote, that were "my introduction to the kind of exotic feminine eyes with ascending eyebrows, "des yeux des biche" (the eyes of the doe), as they were called in France, that have always fascinated me. The technical virtuosity and perfection of those miniatures had a tremendous impact on me. Contrary to what many critics later maintained, it was they, rather than the work of Aubrey Beardsley, that profoundly influenced my ultimate style. I did not discover Beardsley until when I had already been in Paris for a year. "
Ert's first illustration to appear on the "Harper's Bazaar" cover was Orientalist in spirit: "Scheherazade."
In 1925, Ert was invited by Louis B. Mayer to MGM Studios in Hollywood to create film costumes. He worked on a number of films throughout his career, including La Bohme (1926) and Ben Hur (1959).
In the mid-1930s Ert suffered a personal loss through the tragic death of Prince Nicholas Ourousoff. Ert and Price Ourousoff lived together in Monte Carlo from 1914 to 1923. Ourousoff worked as Ert's business manager and helped to launch and establish the designer's spectacular career. At the outbreak of war, Ert focused on the US market, and even through in the post-World War II era interest for Ert's work declined, it exploded anew in the 70s and 80s during the Art Deco revival in the US. In 1967, Grosvenor Gallery exhibited Erte prints in their galleries in New York and London, all pieces were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, and Erte's fame was back full force. Ert's seriagraphs, limited-edition sculpture and jewelry flooded the market. Ert was actually 82 when he started designing jewelry, emulating the style and spirit of the Art Deco. His only previous venture into jewelry design was in 1922, when he had made designs for armlets inspired by the jewelry worn by Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra. Jewelry designer Natalie Kane O'Keiff of Santa Fe, New Mexico was employed to implement Erte's designs, the jewelry pieces bear Erte's signarure.
Erte loved the idea of prints because it made his art very widely accessible - "Lithography is a means," he wrote, "whereby many people of limited means, who can not afford originals, are able to buy one or several prints." In 1974, Erte signed a contract with lithograph publisher Jack Solomon of Circle Fine Art Corp. to produce serigraphs, lithographs and etchings of his earlier designs and illustrations.