Sonia Delaunay, 1885-1979
By Eilís Doolan
As an abstract painter, textile designer, and fashion designer, Sonia Delaunay (née Stern) was a key figure in the Parisian avant-garde – a modern woman artist in a man’s world. From the early twentieth century until her death in 1979, Delaunay pioneered the movement of Simultanism and Orphism, exploring the interaction between colours and shapes to create depth, movement, and vitality. Through her figurative painting, as well as her abstract patterns, textiles, and garments, Delaunay illustrated how the arrangement of simple geometric forms and complementary colours can create a rhythm.
Delaunay was born to a Jewish Ukrainian family in Odessa, but lived with her well-to-do uncle and aunt in St. Petersburg from the age of seven. There, she was offered a cultured and privileged upbringing. After studying painting in Germany, Delaunay married her first husband, the gay German art critic Wilhelm Uhde, and settled in Paris. Though the marriage ended in divorce only two years later, Delaunay’s first husband introduced her to Picasso and Henri Rousseau, giving her the inspiration which would lead to her exploration of colour theory and abstraction.
Delaunay’s very first exhibition was organised in 1909. It featured one of her most striking works, Nu Jaune (1908). The painting depicts a female reclining nude, whose naked skin Delaunay painted with warm yellow tones. The vibrating warmth of the figure’s skin contrasts against the cool emerald contours of her body. The nude body is set against a background of angular patterns. Nu Jaune illustrates Delaunay’s striking use of tone, as bright colours are offset by black marks and lines. The bold outline of the nude body further reveals Delaunay’s primitivist intention. It is reminiscent of Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907). The figure’s face resembles a mask, and there is no visible effort to make her more attractive than she is—imbuing the work with a thoroughly modern feel.
While Delaunay’s earlier work already shows an interest in the ideas expressed by neo-impressionist painters—namely the colour theory and idea of “simultaneous contrast” proposed by Michel Eugene Chevreul—it was during her second marriage to aristocratic avant-garde painter Robert Delaunay that she began experimenting with abstraction. In fact, her very first abstract work was a patchwork quilt made for her son in 1911. Inspired by fabrics seen in the houses of Russian peasants, Delaunay’s quilt combined different rectangular patches of colour, recalling cubism and Russian folk art.
In the following years, Delaunay further expanded her creativity beyond painting. Instead of limiting herself to what was deemed ‘women’s’ work, Delaunay sought to extend her art into broader material culture. She turned to needlework and embroidery, creating abstract book bindings, as well as sewing her own geometric designs into clothing. These clothes were paintings to be worn. Delaunay’s career in fashion really took off during the first World War, as she opened a string of shops in Bilbao, Madrid, and Barcelona, in which she sold her own clothes, fabrics, and homeware. By designing for high-end-clientele, Delaunay infiltrated abstraction into the fashion industry. But Delaunay didn’t stop there. She went on to design costumes for various films and theatre productions, created stage sets, and even illustrated the cover of Vogue in 1926.
After 1913, Delaunay returned to painting, too. Her Electric Prisms are manifestations of modern life. The overlapping geometrical shapes create a rhythmic pattern, resembling a pulsing musical beat, causing the viewers eye to dance across the canvas. Complementary colours are placed next to each other, heightening each other’s intensity so that the viewer is caught up in the relentless rhythm of modernity.
Though she is often regarded as a collaborator to her husband, Robert Delaunay, it is Sonia Delaunay who should be considered the stronger and more complex artist. Her designs are thoroughly and remarkably modern. Delaunay channels cubism, but prioritises colour, and in doing so successfully explores how colour can be used to bring movement, vitality, and musical rhythm. She championed the use of abstraction as a universal visual language. In 1964, she became the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre. In his review of the 2015 exhibition on Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern, Adrian Searle puts it well when he says that Delaunay “tore through the world of art and fashion like a whirlwind.”
Bingham, Juliet. “We will go right up to the sun – The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay.” Tate Etc. issue 33. 9 April 2015. Accessed 7 November 2018.
Searle, Adrian. “Sonia Delaunay review – the woman who made colour dance gets a knockout show.” Guardian. 15 April 2015. Accessed 7 November 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/apr/13/sonia-delaunay-tate-modern-london-review.
“Who is Sonia Delaunay?” Tate Modern. Accessed 5 November 2018. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ey-exhibition-sonia-delaunay/delaunay-introduction. https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/we-will-go-right-sun.