René Gruau

Artist whose posters epitomised a sophisticated France

Renato Zavagli Ricciardelli delle Camminate (René Gruau), graphic artist, poster designer and illustrator: born Rimini, Italy 4 February 1909; died Rome 31 March 2004.

One ofF the most collectable graphic artists of the last 50 years, René Gruau designed classic posters for Paris institutions such as the Lido and Moulin Rouge cabarets as well as the Dior fashion house. He created lasting images of a sophisticated France with his distinctive advertising work for Air France, Cinzano and Vichy mineral water, and his stylish contributions to magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Elle and Le Figaro Madame supplement.

Inspired by art nouveau and Japanese prints, Gruau had a knack for including vertical borders in many of his designs and used red and black to intensify their impact. "I'm self-taught," he told interviewers:

I never had any formal instruction. I simply taught myself by studying other artists. I never took myself seriously but I took my work very seriously.

Born Renato Zavagli Ricciardelli delle Camminate in 1909 to an Italian count and a French mother (Marie Gruau) whose name he would later adopt on entering the art world, he first studied architecture but followed his mother on her travels. This gave him an entry into the world of fashion which would prove invaluable. "My mother was a marvellous woman," he recalled:

She was very pretty and dressed extremely well, at the most prestigious haute couture houses. I accompanied her everywhere.

A keen draughtsman as a teenager, René Gruau met the editor of Lidel, an Italian magazine, who published his first illustrations in 1924. After a short spell designing clothes in London in the early 1930s, he settled in Paris and began contributing to publications such as Fémina, Silhouettes and Marie-Claire. Having spent most of the Second World War in Lyons where the Marie-Claire editorial team had relocated, Gruau returned to the French capital with renewed enthusiasm and developed his own style in the pages of International Textiles magazine.

In 1947, he was commissioned by Christian Dior to launch the Miss Dior fragrance and came up with a stunning design depicting a white swan with a black fan and glove and a pearl necklace. This refined approach proved so successful that grands couturiers such as Pierre Balmain, Marcel Rochas, Jacques Fath and Givenchy hired Gruau to promote the "new look" fashion of the late Forties and early Fifties.

Equally at home designing billboards and ads for Scandale stockings and Le Rouge Baiser lipstick, Gruau was also in demand in the United States, where he worked for various publications including Flair. In 1954, he branched out into films with a striking poster for Jean Renoir's French Cancan and two years later created his first poster for the Lido revue C'est Magnifique!

As photographs began replacing original illustrations in newspapers and magazines, Gruau's creations for the Lido, Le Moulin Rouge and Les Ballets Roland Petit became the epitome of French glamour and sophistication and made him the 20th-century equivalent of Toulouse-Lautrec. "Elegance is fluid and therefore difficult to define but it is made of desire and knowledge, of grace, refinement, perfection and distinction," said Gruau of his work, which sold the delights of cosmetics and accessories as well as aftershave and Boursin cheese.

In the Seventies, the ever-versatile Gruau designed stage costumes for Danielle Darrieux as well as billboards for Lu biscuits and Eminence underwear. He also painted and exhibited both his paintings and his commercial work - numbering a staggering 80.000 original illustrations - around the world and remained active into his nineties, creating an Aids awareness poster for a recent French campaign.

Asked if he still enjoyed drawing his characteristic feminine silhouettes, the illustrator, who always signed his work with a trademark G topped off with a star, replied: "I've had enough of that kind of work. These days, I'm happier drawing animals."

Pierre Perrone

Comments