George Barbier, 1882-1932, Fashion Illustrator: Biography
George Barbier,Fashion Illustrator
(a tedious but informative paper I wrote as a Grad student at UGA in 1986 plus related links at bottom.)
There is very little information to be had on George Barbier as a person. Writers repeatedly mention his beautiful drawings and designs, but pass over the man himself with breathtaking consistency. (Perhaps when contrasted with his more exotic contemporaries, he seemed rather dull). Whatever the reason for this omission, this leaves us with only a poor understanding of his personality, and a great many drawings. This, perhaps, is the better half of the bargain, since Barbier's work speaks for itself better than anyone could speak for Barbier. Barbier's career did not "take off" until he was thirty, but his drawings were so exceptionally good that his career could never said to have stopped going, even after his death. Barbier's drawings are still so popular that they continue to thrive in reprint form, and also on such varied objects as dishes, notebooks, stationary, and perfume bottles.
Grande Robe Du Soir
George Barbier's career "started", for all practical purposes in 1912. Three important new Paris fashion magazines began publishing in that year
1 and Barbier was made the principal illustrator for two of them. One of them, the Journal des Dames et des Modeslasted only two years but served to establish Barbier as a designer, since the illustrations in the magazine were not copies of couturier models but designs Barbier did himself. This allowed Barbier to exert an influence on fashion without actually running a couturier house himself. The Journal des Dames et des Modes:
... was a luxury magazine for an exclusive clientele; only 1279 copies of each issue were printed. The magazine appeared three times a month The text part of each number filled eight pages and consisted of belles lettres - aphorisms, fashionable poetry, fashion notes and the like - written by pillars of tout Paris...Anatole France, Jean Cocteau and the Comtesse de Noailles. In addition, each issue was accompanied by from one to five unbound colored fashion plates...the yearly subscription price was 100 francs in France, 120 francs elsewhere.
Needless to say, copies of the magazine are extremely rare, as are individual plates.
3 Fortunately, Dover and Rizzoli have reprinted most of the plates between them so that studying them at second hand is now possible.
Another great fashion magazine emergent in 1912 was the better known than the Journal and longer lived. Barbier contributed drawings to the Gazette from 1912-1925 when the Gazettewas bought out by Vogue and Barbier's contract shifted to that magazine.
4 Barbier's illustrations for the Gazettewere sometimes his own designs, but as often as not he drew models of gowns by Paquin, Beer, and Worth. The Gazette, like the Journal
...consisted of urbane articles, copiously illustrated with vignettes, on theatre, travel, and other topics of interest to the leisured wealthy, but with clothing and personal adornment always as the paramount subject. The real heart of each monthly issue, however, was the plates.
And the plates were more frequently by Barbier than any other artist. To a great extent, Barbier's style of rendering was the style of rendering used in the Journaland Gazette
Gazette Du Bon Ton II
Gazette Du Bon Ton I
It seems to owe its outlines to the style of Aubrey Beardsley and its color to Leon Bakst. The color sense shown in Barbier's own fashion designs is more bold than those drawings made from pre-existing models, where he was forced to confine his color to the background treatment. With dull-colored couturier dresses, this sometimes has the unfortunate effect of rendering the background more attractive than the gown, something that rarely occurs with Barbier's own designs.
Barbier was also one of many artists who made a living illustrating limited "editions de luxe", intended to be collectors items due to their limited circulation and high standards of printing. A mania for these books swept France in the teens and twenties
Classics and contemporary works illustrated by the leading artists of the day, often bound in lavish, specially designed bindings, were eagerly collected; societies of bibliophies were founded in the cities and towns of France so that subscribers could be sure of obtaining the latest publications, numerous enough to warrant a lengthy column in the magazine "L'Amour de l'Art" each month devoted entirely to the subject. Guy Arnoux, George Barbier, Leon Benigni, Benito, Robert Banfils, Pierre Bissaud, Brunelleschi, Etienne Brian, Georges Lepape, Charles Martin, and Andre Marty found a lucrative demand for contributions which brought a considerable amount of prestige.
7 The first book of this kind done by Barbier, in 1913, was an album of drawings of Nijinsky, the dancer, done in his various roles in the Ballets Russes. Nineteen hundred and fourteen saw a similar album of Karsavina. These drawings were mostly in black and white, and it is in these pictures that the similarity to Beardsley's style is most evident. After these albums, Barbier seemed to pull away from this style, using more color and less outlining to make his graphic statements.
As a male French citizen of 32, it seems reasonable to assume that Barbier was drafted during the war. He might still have been able to continue to contribute drawings during his leaves, (Cocteau conceived and directed Paradefor the Ballets Russe while on leave
9) but the Journal folded in the same month the war started,
10 and the Gazette suspended publication from 1915-1920.
11 The last illustration Barbier did for the Gazette before 1920 was of a collection of dresses sent by the French government to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915
While hostilities stopped in 1918, Barbier's regular job with the Gazettedid not resume until 1920. Something to pay the rent was obviously needed, and found when Barbier took to Theatre design. He designed a production of Cassanova, the plates of which now are in the Victoria and Albert Museum. A number of other Barbier renderings are located there (without labels unfortunately) of costumes dating from 1919-1920.
13 By 1923 (if not sooner) Barbier was designing costumes for the The Folies Bergère through the costume house of Max Weldy.
14 Weldy ran a huge operation where he held the rights to the costume designs so that when revues were staged at the Folies, duplicate sets could be made and sold to other theatres. For example, when Erte designed a tableaux "Gold" for Ziegfeld in New York, duplicate sets were made the next year for the Follies Bergere and theatres around the world, while Erte stayed at home in Paris receiving his commission several times over.
15 As the publication of limited editions added to Barbier's artistic prestige at home, this international design pooling added to his prestige abroad. Consequently both Barbier and Erte were asked to design for American movies in 1924. While Erte went to Hollywood to costume a number of movies, (including the American segments ofBen Hur
16 Barbier stayed in Paris and sent his designs for his movie project to New York where they were made up by Brooks.
Barbier had been hired by Rudolph Valentino and his production designer/wife, Natacha Rambova, to do costumes for their first film collaboration because of his designs for Casanova which they saw in one of its incarnations (probably built by the Weldy Studios) in 1923 while on their honeymoon in Europe. Motion Picturemagazine explained it in 1924:
'Mr. and Mrs. Valentino marveled over the beauty of the costumes worn in the stage production of Casanova. They discovered Barbier, of Paris, had designed them and remembered him when Monsieur Beaucaire was planned...Barbier...conceived these costumes for the cast of Monseur Beaucaire they were then executed in the beautiful materials described. The sketches of Barbier here reproduced with the player wearing the same costumes make interesting comparisons possible.
The most interesting comparison possible is with one of Valentino's costumes which was substantially changed from rendering to finished product. Since the costumes and film were made in New York, and Barbier was in Paris, it was naturally the production designer's business to supervise and alterations necessary. Since Natacha Rambova was also a costume designer (and reputedly both a talented and opinionated one
19), this could not have been a problem. Unfortunately, this circumstance has provided a problem for historians, deciding who properly deserves credit for the designs. While the renderings reproduced in "Motion Picture" are undoubtedly Barbier's, changes were made in some of the costumes before they saw the screen. Rambova certainly deserves the credit for these changes, since she, by all accounts, held absolute artistic control of all aspects of production.
20 What this means is that the question "Who designed 'Monseur Beaucaire'?" will probably never be completely answered since it appears to be that Barbier and Rambova both did. The designs were received very well. The New York Times began its review with:
Clad in embroidered satin and costly laces, his glossy dark hair covered by a white wig, Rudolph Valentino, after an absence of two years, has returned to the screen and is to be seen this week at the Mark Strand in the title role of the picturization of Booth Tarkington's exquisite story, "Monseur Beaucaire". Gorgeous is a word we invariably dodge, but this pictorial effort is thoroughly deserving of such an adjective, as never before have such wondrous settings or beautiful costumes been seen in a photoplay.
While critics agreed that the film was visually beautiful, it was not a great box office success.
22 Barbier continued to design for the Folies Bergere through the Max Weldy Studios. In 1923 Barbier had designed the lavish "The Crystal Cave" costumes to the revueIn Full Folly This was followed in 1924 by "The Nile Legend", "Paris During the Directoire", "Napoleon at Malmaison", and "The Victims Ball" for Hearts in Folly
23 in 1926 by "A Fete at Versaille" and "On Change" for The Follies of the Day
24 and in 1927 by "A Hotel of the Reign of Louis XIII" and "The Same in 1927" for A Breeze of Folly.
[Designs for the above costumes are at theUniversity of Georgia's Click here to see a few of them!]
Folies Productions were lavish to say the least. Paul Derval, the Company Manager, said in a Folies programme: "The fabrics required for a review measure some 500 kilometers - the distance from Paris to Lyons."
26 In charge of making the review costumes was Max Weldy. An article in Paris Soir on December 18, 1928 describes Weldy's job:
Max Weldy, from his office and ateliers next door to the stage door at the Folies Bergere in the rue Savlnier controls the studios which furnish the entire world with revue, ballets, operettas, and musical comedies. Two or three hundred people work here everyday...opened the dispatch ledger, one review is in the cape, others at Calcutta, Bombay, Shanghai, Hong Kong, England, at Oslo, etc. Current commissions include a revue costing one hundred thousand dollars for the U.S.A. Costumes, decors, curtains are exported by Weldy to the Winter Garden, to Ziegfeld, to the Apollo Theatre, New York; also to the Admirals-Palatz in Berlin, the Olympia on Barcelona, The Queen Victoria, Madrid, the Maypon at Buenos Aires, without counting C.B. Cochran's London revues. For Paris, Weldy mounts the revues at the Folies Bergere every year. That means a million and a half each year.
Barbier was almost certainly influenced in his revue costumes by his more famous colleague, Erte, who also designed costumes for The Folies. Barbier composed the following description of Erte's style for a catalogue of an exhibition of Erte's work.
I appreciate him above all when on the stage of the music-hall he brings out of the earth a network of diamonds throbbing on nude bodies, when he unfurls curtains embroidered with fantastic birds, or when again he raises curtains woven with ostrich feathers and heavy with fur, or harems afire, or on eastern cities built of snow, of nacre or metal. It is no easy task to wrench the blas spectator from his seat in the stalls or to carry him away on the magic carpet to a world of splendour...
Barbier's designs, although not so exotic as Erte's, are certainly as lavish and as seat wrenching. Barbier continued to work for Weldy it seems, since he co-designed an operetta, The Red Robe in New York through the studio's far flung "mail order" business. No record other than the New York Times' review seems to have survived:
The scenery gives a pleasing illusion of splendor and rich reckless antiquity, and the costumes are generally conceived on the same spirit, even when the color combinations do not work out just right. The ballet has the best of it in the dress parade outfit, as on the rest, but Mr. Woolf and Miss Gilliand also do themselves pretty well in a modified rapture of Louis Treize furnishings.
This would seem to indicate that the listings of two costumers meant that the Barbier/Weldy costumes were incorporated into a show pulled partially from stock - since one thing absolutely consistent about Barbier was his perfect color sense.
The last show that I can find Barbier worked on wasParis Shakesat the Casino de Paris with Josephine Baker. He contributed the costumes and decor for the "Bird of the Forest"
30 tableaux, probably also built by the Weldy Studio. The poster for the review, by Zig, another designer, may show Josephine Baker's "Bird" costume, as its headdress is very similar to a previous Barbier design for the "The Crystal Cave" of 1923.
31 There are no other records of Barbier's designs after this. He died in 1932 at age 50.
There are George Barbier Drawings in the See also the Page. On Valentino see , and the