“Elegance by its very nature is fluid and consequently difficult to distinct.” – René Gruau
The eye of the artist is a lens upon the world. The images absorbed through this lens are filtered through the artist’s personal vision shaped by upbringing, lifestyle and passion. René Gruau drew upon those experiences, capturing the world of fashion through illustrations that would, in turn, captivated the world.
Renato Zavagli Ricciardelli, born in 1909 in Rimini, Italy, was the son of an Italian count and more importantly, a fashionable French aristocrat, Maria Gruau de la Chesnaie. René’s passion for drawing surfaced as a child, nurtured by his mother, his first muse. At the age of three his parents divorced and he was swept up by his mother into her world of travel, art and fashion. He accompanied her across the globe gaining entry into the social, artistic and fashion worlds frequented by the aristocracy. Self taught, He continued to develop the skill nurtured by his mother, who also introduced him to the editor of a fashion publication, Lidel, which commissioned René’s first fashion illustration when he was 14.
Settled in Paris, the son adopted his mother’s maiden name and Renato became René Gruau. He continued to develop his craft and eye, and, with an innate talent for creating fashion illustrations, worked for various publications. At 18 his work was being published internationally, and by 1935, when he was in his twenties, he created illustrations for Femina, a prime competitor to French Vogue. This gave his work higher visibility and stature, which in turn lead to commissions from other renown publications such as Le Magazine du Figaro, L’Officiel and Marie Claire.
The name Gruau, and his iconic signature, a painted star, over a capital “G”, became synonymous with high fashion. Influenced by Japanese minimalism and Toulouse Lautrec’s spirited art (which also inspired his signature), his work elicited a style that was unique and contemporary. He enjoyed continued success up until the advent of World War II.
The realities of war intruded into all realms of Parisian life, and fashion suffered a heavy toll.
The war had decimated Paris, the city regarded as the capital of haute couture, and a once thriving business was now bankrupt and devoid of a future.
René Gruau and Christian Dior were longtime friends. After the war their friendship fostered a renaissance that helped to reestablished Paris as the Capital of Fashion. In 1947 the partnership led to the birth of the legendary“New Look” Collection, heralded as revolutionary and a new direction in fashion, placing the House of Dior and Paris once again at fashion’s center. In tandem, Gruau became the artistic director of advertising for Dior, solidifying a creative collaboration that would last a lifetime and affirm Gruau’s standing within haute couture.
Couture can be an elusive creature. It is an art where luxurious fabrics are concocted into magnificent creations that transform the wearer into a glamorous swan. Beneath the surface of these seemingly effortless designs lies intricate workmanship engineered to achieve the desired affect. Gruau’s work is the perfect companion to couture, fashion illustration also being an elusive genre of work. His illustrations appear effortless, yet beneath the façade of his glamorous flowing figures is a solid foundation in the practice of art. Draftsmanship, based on years of drawing and observation, is essential. A command of anatomy allows for the stylization of the figure, and a selectivity of shapes create a seamless composition brought to life by a spirited flair line. René Gruau’s work achieved recognition because of his extraordinary talent and the skill to create illustrations that emanated glamour, drama and elegance.
His artwork flourished through the 1940s and into the ’50s highlighting such legendary ateliers as Balenciaga, Balmain, Lavin, Givenchy, Schiaparelli, Fath and Molyneux. In1948 he moved to the United States, where he worked for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and became the exclusive illustrator for Flair magazine. While his domain was fashion he also designed artwork for advertising and posters. Some of his more memorable pieces were for Roland Petit’s ballet, Phantom of the Opera, Federico Fellini’s, Dolce Vita, Air France, Omega, The Lido and Moulin Rouge cabarets, Elizabeth Arden and countless advertising campaigns. Extremely prolific, Gruau continued working into his nineties. His archive and legacy is immense and astounding, yet nothing superseded his creative collaboration with the House of Dior.
“A line…is the basis of all art. With a single line we can express grandeur, nobility, and sensuality; the line synthesizes sensations and concentrates knowledge.” René Gruau
Line is essential to René Gruau. He plays line like a maestro leads an orchestra. At times, it’s a broad sweeping brushstroke, full of energy, while at others a delicate contour framing the emotional timbre of the subject. This line is complimented by selective shapes and punched with a minimal use of color, typically red, black and white. Gruau’s role as advertising director for Dior allowed his unique style to evolve and became renown for its use of an economy of line, shape and color.
Rouge Baisers “1949” is one of Gruau’s and Dior’s most iconic images. An advertisement for Dior’s red lipstick, this illustration demonstrates his ability to compose color, line and shape in a harmonious method that is elegant, sensual and bold. This seemingly simple drawing of a woman stares out at us from a white page. She is elegant and chic, drawn with a black line and red lips. At first glance seemingly unremarkable, yet, you have to look! There is something in her gaze and poise that holds the viewer spellbound. A black contour line defines the elegant shape of the woman’s head, which is turned slightly to the left. The dramatic black shape of a blindfold divides the head in two, hugging and defining her facial contours. The blindfold is tied on the right side to form two sharp diagonals above and below her pearl earring. Above this black shape is her hair defined by selective delicate lines suggesting perfect grooming.
Her neck, elongated by the presence of a bold black brush stroke, ends perfectly in a point. The play of line quality is used to describe the lower portion of the face. A black continuous line transforms from thick to thin, captures the cheekbone and then the jaw, while the most delicate line is reserved for her nose, which peeks out from beneath the blindfold. A slash of red, similar to the stain of a kiss, is used sparingly and to great effect. Her lips, moist and slightly open, finish the image conveyed in a wash of color. I dare you to look away…this is the artist’s power over us.
His work seizes our attention as the graphic image pulls us in slowly, seducing our eye and then spiking our imagination to complete the narrative. Rouge Baisers is iconic Gruau and the perfect match and branding image for Dior. Bold, glamorous provocative and, like his mother, elegant.
No other artist has captured the world of haute couture so succinctly as René Gruau. He captured the essence and spirit of this world, creating elegant and timeless graphic narratives of glamour, style and wit that ushered in a new era of fashion illustration. His place in the world of fashion and illustration is well established, and his place in the Hall of Fame cements that legacy.
Artist in Residence Christian Dior