Delaunay, Sonia

Sonia Delaunay was a multi-disciplinary abstract artist and key figure in the Parisian avant-garde. Alongside her husband, Robert Delaunay, she pioneered the movement Simultanism. Her exploration of the interaction between colors has created a sense of depth and movement throughout her oeuvre.

She was born Sonia Illinitchna Stern to a Jewish Ukrainian family. At the age of seven she went to live with her comparatively wealthy uncle Henri Terk and his wife, Anna, in St Petersburg, Russia. The Terks offered her a privileged and cultured upbringing in St Petersburg. Nevertheless, her childhood memories of Ukraine remained with her and she often referred back to the ‘pure’ color and bright costumes of the Ukrainian peasant weddings.

About 1911, Delaunay recalled, I had the idea of making for my son, who had just been born, a blanket composed of bits of fabric like those I had seen in the houses of Russian peasants. When it was finished, the arrangement of the pieces of material seemed to me to evoke cubist conceptions and we then tried to apply the same process to other objects and paintings.  I always changed everything around me… I made my first white walls so our paintings would look better. I designed my furniture; I have done everything. I have lived my art.

Delaunay’s creativity expanded beyond painting to include many other outlets such as Casa Sonia, an interiors and fashion boutique that she set up 1918. The entire set and costume design of Tristan Tzara’s 1923 play Le Cœur à Gaz; An illustration for the cover of Vogue in 1926; Costumes for the films Le Vertige directed by Marcel L’Herbier and Le p’tit Parigot, directed by René Le Somptier; Furniture for the set of the 1929 film Parce que je t’aime; And her textiles label Tissus Delaunay, which sold her designs worldwide.

Orphism is a term originating from 1912 when French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire identified the new style of Cubist painting. Apollinaire was inspired by the work of František Kupka and the Delaunays, who, although channeling the Cubist vision, prioritized color in their work. Apollinaire felt this use of color brought movement, light and musical qualities to the artwork and therefore referenced the legendary poet and singer of ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus, when naming the movement.

Simultanism is the strand of Orphism practiced by the Delaunays. The name comes from the work of French scientist Michel Eugène Chevreul who identified the phenomenon of ‘simultaneous contrast’ in which colors look different depending on the colors around them. For example, a grey will look lighter on a dark background than it does on a light one. The Delaunays dispensed with form and aimed to created rhythm, motion and depth through overlapping patches of vibrant hues.

With regard to her background, Delaunay noted …For a very long time I hadn’t believed in God, but would seek out nature, and I felt the need to fulfil my desires. Now, I would worship pagan gods; it’s the only religion I recognize. Praying to beauty — there is a great deal of selflessness in that, and a purely aesthetic element which alone ennobles life and makes it love.

As well as a major retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Bielefeld in 1958, Delaunay was the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in 1964. She has also had her work shown at Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Musée National d’Art Moderne and Tate Modern.