Erté was born Romain de Tirtoff in St. Petersburg, Russia on November 23rd, 1892. The only son of an admiral in the Imperial Fleet, he was raised amidst Russia's social elite. As a young boy, Romain worshipped his mother and was educated at home until the age of twelve, spending much of the time in the company of elegant women. At the age of five he created an evening gown for his mother and managed to persuade the adults to craft it, they were astounded by the results. He was also fascinated by the Persian miniatures he found in his father's library; these exotic, brightly patterned designs continued to be important to him and influenced the development of his style.
In 1912, Romain left St. Petersburg for Paris at the age of nineteen with the aim of becoming an artist. He took nothing with him and as it turned out he was leaving Russia forever; all his youthful projects were lost – and with them the Russia in which he had grown up in. In December of 1912, Romain managed to find work as a draughtsman in a second-rate fashion house called Caroline. However, at the end of his first month there, the Madame and owner of the establishment, handed back his drawings and offered some maternal advice: to abandon his hopes of becoming an artist since he had no such talent. In response, Erté put all of his sketches and designs in an envelope and sent them to the most famous person in the world of fashion – Paul Poiret, “Paul le Magnifique”. Paul Poiret immediately offered for him to work at his company, which in the early 20th century, was setting the standard to all that Erté would become a revolutionary force within in Parisian fashion world. It can only be assumed that Poiret saw in the young Russian a talent that would enable him to take up the couturier’s ideas, and develop them himself. Still under-age, however, Romain would need his father’s signature on the work contract-something that didn’t elicit great enthusiasm from the general who had no wish for his son to embark on a career that would bring shame on their noble, military lineage. Thus, it was that he took an artistic name and became who the world knows as Erté, an abbreviation formed from the first letters in his first and last names.
After working with Poiret on several theatrical productions Romain, still under the pseudonym of Erte, began to work more independently. In 1914, he created the entire wardrobe for Pierre Louÿs’ Aphrodite at the Theatre de la Renaissance. Erté did not just design dresses here, he oversaw the entire creation process within Poiret’s workshop, specializing exclusively in theatrical costume and design. Throughout his career Erté continued to work within the diverse fields of stage production. He hand-crafted original costume and fashion designs for many of the era’s most renowned screen actresses, including Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Marion Davies, Anna Pavlova, Norma Shearer and others. His masterpieces for the stage included extravagant production designs at venues such as New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the Casino de Paris and the Paris Opera, as well as for the Folies-Bergères and George White’s Scandals.
In 1915 he began his long professional relationship with Harper's Bazaar, starting with the January Issue. From then on, every month for the next twenty years, the magazine included a colored illustration by Erté. In total, he created 240 covers for the esteemed magazine. For 6 months in 1916 Erté simultaneously worked with Vogue as well, but the owner of Harper’s Bazaar, the media magnate William Randolph Hearst, offered the artist an exclusive long-term contract that was impossible to refuse. In all, around two thousands of Erté’s delicate pen and ink compositions created the particularly recognizable style of Harper’s Bazaar in the 1920s and 30s. They made Erté famous and highly sought-after in America and his audience permanently expanded across the Atlantic. Hearst summed up this creative partnership when he said, “What would Harper’s Bazaar have been if it wasn’t for Erté”? His fashion designs also appeared in many other publications making him one of the most widely recognized artists of the 1920s. From 1915, Erté started to ask for his original drawings to be returned to him after they had been used for printing, and if this wasn’t possible, he would specially order copies of the drawings for his own possession. According to his personal calculations he created, in all, more than 17,000 works. As a result of his highly publicized success, Erté would later be called the father of the ‘Art Deco’ movement.
Erté is also well-remembered for the gloriously extravagant costumes and stage sets that he designed for the Folies-Bergère in Paris, and George White's Scandals in New York. He used these projects to bring his love for the exotic and romantic and intertwine it with sinuous and lyrical form of the human figure. He also had a brief, and not wholly satisfactory, stint working in Hollywood in 1925, at the invitation of Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer. He found the environment unpleasing, stressful and underappreciated, having to consistently redo costumes at a moment notice.
After a period of relative obscurity in the 1940s and 1950s, Erté's characteristic style found a new and enthusiastic market in the 1960s, and the artist responded to a renewed demand by creating a series of colorful lithographic prints and sculptures.
At the age of seventy-five, Erté was encouraged to embark on a new career and began to recreate the remarkable designs of his youth in bronze and serigraphy. The ‘Art Deco’ movement was hence reborn. In 1976 the French government awarded Erté the title of Officer of Arts and Letters, and in 1982 the Medaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris was bestowed upon him. A lifetime of international success and recognition has ensured this unique artist's place in the chronicles of art history. Today, some of his original designs still grace the permanent collections of prestigious museums throughout the world including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
The great Erté – Romain Petrovich de Tirtoff – died in April 1990 at the age of ninety-seven in Paris.