Spotlight on René Gruau, a Giant of Fashion Illustration

By Faith Duvall –

In this article we take a closer look at the life and work of René Gruau, an artist behind some of the most sought-after vintage ads. Born in 1909 to an Italian count, he eschewed the military path set out by his father, becoming interested in art at an early age. After his parents’ separation, he moved to Paris with his mother, later taking her surname. Maria Gruau strongly influenced the feminine ideal seen in his pictures, and he would often flick through the fashion magazines she left scattered around the house. Enticed by the world of haute couture, he taught himself to draw and became a precocious talent, selling his first work to a French magazine at the age of 14. By his late teens Gruau’s advertising art was already being published in Italy, France and the United States.
During the Second World War Gruau struggled to find work. It was in those years, however, that he met Christian Dior, an encounter which would change his life. They became close friends, bonding over similar childhoods. Dior’s conception of femininity was similar to Gruau’s, and he too had been inspired by his mother, a wealthy sophisticate. In 1947 Gruau became Dior’s artistic director for advertising and together they created the so-called ‘New Look’, a fashion style that spoke to a post-war optimism. As haute couture said farewell to austerity, Dior’s designs and Gruau’s illustrations captured the joie de vivre of a France in economic boom. Though In his lifetime Gruau worked for many prestigious fashion houses including Schiaparelli, Fath, and Chanel, he remains best known for his work with Dior.
Inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, Gruau’s style is marked out by the gracefulness of his ink lines and bold use of block colours. His 1949 illustration for the lipstick Rouge Baiser provides a classic example. For the woman’s face he employs an effortless ink line which emphasises her elegance. The simple combination of white, black and red is a Gruau trademark, the daring use of negative space another.


This 1950 ad for Dior perfume is one of his best. It depicts a swan wearing a pearl necklace and a large black bowtie. His use of block colours is, again, striking. Unconventional at the time, it does not depict the product itself, but symbolises of the product’s refined character. The swan also symbolises newness, a common theme for the illustrator of the New Look.


Though Christian Dior died in 1957, Gruau worked for the house right into the 1980s. As photography became the principal means of fashion illustration in the second half of the century, many illustrators had to find work elsewhere. But Gruau bucked the trend- a testament to the brilliance and uniqueness of his work, some of which still hangs in the Louvre.
Known as the twentieth century’s greatest fashion illustrator, original posters by Gruau can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction. He has had a lasting influence on the art world, commercial and non. Most recently, his work for Dior was shown at an exhibition in London’s Somerset House bearing the name ‘René Gruau and the Line of Beauty’. As the creator of some of the most loved vintage advertising art, Gruau’s line of beauty lives on.


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