Sonia Delaunay (14 November 1885 – 4 December 1979)
Sonia Delaunay was a Ukrainian-born French artist, known for her colourful, geometric abstract works that transcend the boundaries of fine art and applied art. At the age of five, she was sent to live in St. Petersberg with her maternal uncle who adopted her and brought her up amongst the arts. During her upbringing in Russia, she was not only introduced to the visual arts but dance and music too, which had a profound impact on her work as she famously embodied a sense of rhythm in her painting.
From 1903-1905, Sonia studied drawing in Karlsruhe and in 1906, she moved to Paris, Europe’s artistic centre, where she studied art at the Academie de la Pallette. In 1908, she married Wilhelm Uhde, a German art dealer who owned a gallery in Montparnasse. This was a marriage of convenience: Sonia needed to marry to remain in Paris despite the demands of her parents to return to Russia, and Uhde wished to mask his homosexuality. Through him, Sonia was able to display her work at his gallery and encountered artists such as Braque, Picasso, de Vlaminck and Robert Delaunay (whom she would go on to marry). By mutual agreement, Sonia divorced Uhde and in 1910 married Delaunay, to whom she remained wed until his death in 1941. They had one child, Charles, in 1911.
Sonia’s art had three defining features that resonated throughout her oeuvre. The first was her use of colour. She and her husband developed a new artistic style called Orphism (or Simultanism) that consisted of overlapping or pairing opposing colours with each other. This would mean that greens & reds, yellows & purples, and blues & oranges would be used alongside one another on the artwork, making each colour stand out. This experimentation with colour came to fruition whilst the couple remained in Spain and Portugal during World War I.
The second striking feature of Sonia’s work was her ability to evoke rhythm and movement, which stemmed from her interest in dance. Whether it was figurative paintings of dance halls or abstract shapes, the notion of movement was always present. This can be seen in her painting of the Bal Bullier dance hall in Paris (1913).
Sonia Delaunay, Le Bal Bullier, 1912-13, Oil on canvas, 50.2 x 73 cm, Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris
(image source: www.artcritical.com)
The final feature of her work was interdisciplinarity. Although she was a painter first and foremost, she was also a designer. This began with a quilt she designed for her son Charles in 1911, and she continued to dabble in the applied arts throughout her life. She designed clothing, scarves, books, and various household objects. Her renowned fabric and fashion designs led to her invitation to speak at the Sorbonne in 1927 on the “Influence of Painting on the Art of Clothing”. It was here that she founded the notion of pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear). Some of her notable designs include the outfits for Sergei Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet in 1917, a commission that she took up after her parents could no longer send her money upon the dawn of the Russian Revolution. She also made costume designs and book covers for the work of her close friend, Tristan Tzara, poet and co-founder of the Dada movement.
Sonia Delaunay and two friends in Robert Delaunay’s studio, 1924 (image source: www.independent.co.uk)
Sonia Delaunay passed away in 1979 leaving an incredible artistic legacy. She had received the Légion d’Honneur, painted the poster for the International Women’s Year of UNESCO (both 1975), and was the first living female artist to have had a retrospective at the Louvre (1964). Her inspiring international recognition as an artist lives on in her still-prosperous reputation.
Selected Recommended Reading:
Stanley Baron, Sonia Delaunay: The Life of an Artist, Abrams: New York, 1995
Jacques Damase, Sonia Delaunay: Fashion and Fabrics (translated by Shaun Whiteside), Thames & Hudson: London, 1997
Anne Montfort and Cecile Godefroy, Sonia Delaunay (catalogue) Tate Gallery Publishing: London, 2014
Online article by: Maryann de Julio, ‘Sonia Delaunay’, Jewish Women’s Archives http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/delaunay-sonia