Like many artists of the Art Deco period, Erté (French, born Russia, 1892–1990), né Romain de Tirtoff, took inspiration from a number of so-called “exotic” sources, including a recurring artistic movement in Europe and the United States known as Egyptian Revival. During the 1920s and 30s, artists, architects, and designers looked to Egyptian ornamentation and motifs—scarabs, lotus flowers, snakes, and falcons, among many others—to enhance their creations. The stylized, geometric nature of these motifs dovetailed nicely with other aspects of what would come to define the Art Deco aesthetic.
How was it that these ancient motifs, thousands of years old, made their way into the art, architecture, and fashion of the 1920s and 30s? For a clue, one need only look at the newspaper headlines of 1922 (like this New York Times article from December 1, 1922, “Gem-Studded Relics in Egyptian Tomb Amaze Explorers”).
While the early decades of the 20th century saw some interest in ancient Egyptian themes, as depicted in films like 1917’s Cleopatra with Theda Bara and in live performances such as the 1918 Ballets Russes production of Cléôpâtre at the Coliseum Theatre in London, it wasn’t until British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the antechamber to the tomb of Tutankhamun (reigned 1332–1323 B.C.) in November of 1922 that the world became gripped with Egypt fever. The subsequent reporting in the international press as the excavation of the tomb continued only fueled global interest.
This immense enthusiasm for all things Egyptian or Egyptomania, as it is often called, was not unique to the 1920s. In fact, the French emperor Napoleon’s campaign in North Africa over a century earlier had much the same effect on the zeitgeist of early 19th-century Europe.
This was largely thanks to the publication of the two-volume Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte pendant les campagnes du Général Bonaparte by Baron Vivant Denon in 1802. This publication, which featured Denon’s sketches of ancient Egyptian monuments, would go on to influence decorative and architectural designs in France and across Europe, and become an essential early text of modern Egyptology. (Denon later served as the first director of the Louvre in Paris; a wing of the museum was named in his honor.)
The Egyptian Revival of the 1920s was notably theatrical, and the period saw the rise of many Egyptian-themed productions—even the creation of Egyptian-style theaters, like Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles and the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb, Illinois. It’s no wonder then that the revival style would appeal to an artist like Erté.
Accomplished in a variety of fields, Erté designed costumes and sets for theatrical productions on both sides of the Atlantic, including those with Egyptian subjects such as the Maurice Rostand’s Le Secret du Sphinx of 1924 and The Great Rivers of the World for the Folies Bergère circa 1925. His dramatic costume design for Cléôpâtre from Broadway’s George White’s Scandals in 1926 (above), now in The Met collection, is an excellent example of this.
Another costume design for George White’s Scandals called “The Nile” (circa 1926), in the collection of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, showcases a chicly attired Egyptian queen set against a stylized feather backdrop. This splendid Erté gouache, with its vivid colors and striking chevrons, inspired a number of stylish Met Store designs, including a silk scarf, a beautifully beaded clutch purse by From St Xavier, jewelry, and other intriguing items.
Erté’s interest in Egyptian motifs can also be seen in his famed Harper’s Bazaar magazine covers and illustrations. His cover for the February 1927 edition (not pictured here), for example, featured a magnificent Sphinx, with alternating blue and green stripes in a lavish headdress. He created more than 240 covers for the publication from 1915 to 1936.
The world’s fascination with ancient Egypt did not end with the Egyptian Revival of the 20s and 30s. In fact, Egyptomania enjoyed a bit of a resurgence toward the end of the 20th century, with The Met playing an instrumental part. Artifacts excavated from King Tut’s tomb, billed as the Treasures of Tutankhamun, traveled the world beginning in 1972. The Met was responsible for organizing the multi-venue U.S. leg of the exhibition. So enraptured was the nation by this show—which made seven stops in the U.S. in the mid- to late 1970s—that it even became the subject of a couple of Saturday Night Live skits at the time—one featuring Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna and another with actor and comedian Steve Martin, who wrote and performed a song called “King Tut.”