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Triptych is a large oil painting on canvas by Ukrainian-born French artist Sonia Delaunay. Its composition comprises a series of abstract shapes, including circles, semi-circles, squares, triangles and rectangles. The painting is loosely divided into the three sections indicated in its title, Triptych. Of these, the centre is dominated by three large disks while the left and right sides are filled with part-circles, triangles and squares. The three sections are broadly marked out by a diagonal line running from the lower right corner to the upper centre and a broken vertical line formed by the arrangement of squares in the upper left corner which continues to the lower edge. A vivid palette of reds, blues, blacks, white, green, grey and orange has been used. This palette, combined with the diverse and often fractured geometric forms, gives the painting a lively appearance. The viewer’s eye is continually drawn to the centre of the image by the lighter areas of yellow ochre, light green, orange and white that delineate the central disks. The work is signed in white paint in the lower left corner.
Delaunay created Triptych in April and May 1963, most likely in her studio at 16 rue Saint-Simon, Paris, to which she moved in 1935 and in which she lived until her death in 1979. She characteristically painted onto the surface of her canvases without prior underdrawing, as is case with Triptych. The oil paint has been boldly applied with a brush and palette knife in clear blocks of colour. Different techniques have been incorporated, such as scumbling and scraping down, and the white primer can be glimpsed in areas such as around the red semi-circle in the lower right corner. The surface is largely matte, especially in the black, blue and green areas, although the white and ochre elements are glossy in appearance.
In 1966 Delaunay explained that she called this work Triptych ‘because I composed it starting from three different motifs I have been working on for some years. The left-hand part is a motif I have worked on since 1960. The right-hand one is more recent’ (quoted in Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.164). The triangles, curved shapes and rectangles are characteristic of her work in this period. However, Triptych also marked a turning point. In 1966 Delaunay wrote: ‘this is a painting on which I worked a great deal and which opened up new vistas for me. I have freed myself from many plastic problems. I now intend to continue in this direction with all my lyricism, while retaining the precision of construction’ (quoted in Alley 1981, p.164). She elaborated: ‘I set myself the problem of introducing an area of white in the centre. It was very difficult to create a unity between the two parts’ (quoted in Alley 1981, p.164). The difficulty Delaunay had in making Triptych is suggested by a photograph published in 1965 in the journal Aujourd’hui which shows the painting in progress and indicates that some reworking was undertaken, particularly in the central composition (see Aujourd’hui, no.48, 1965, p.84).
According to the art historians Stanley Baron with Jacques Damase, Delaunay’s aim ‘was not to reduce abstract art to an intellectual preference. For her, the abstract and the sensuous had to “marry”’ (Baron and Damase 1995, p.49). When asked in 1978 if she attributed any kind of cosmic significance to geometric shapes, Delaunay claimed: ‘no. Too abstract. No, no, no. I’m too earthy’ (quoted in Seidner and Delaunay 1982, p.66). Triptych sees the emergence of a dark palette following her husband Robert’s death in 1941, as the artist Jennifer Durant has observed: ‘a remarkable cacophony of gongs or solemn, chiming bells. Harshened vermilion, and richly darkened – and also lightened – viridian, make sonorous tones against the blacks’ (Jennifer Durant, ‘Jennifer Durant RA on the Richness of Sonia Delaunay’s Life and Art’, RA Magazine, Spring 2015, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/jennifer-durrant-on-sonia-delaunay, accessed 15 May 2016).
The varied forms and layered picture planes demonstrate Delaunay’s interest in the colour theories of Marcel Eugène Chevreul (1786–1889), whose findings on the relationships of simultaneous colour led Sonia and Robert Delaunay to found a new style based on earlier cubist work. This style was called simultanism and was later rechristened orphism by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Triptych is a key painting from Delaunay’s later career, when she was firmly established as one of the pioneers of abstraction. In 1964 she had a retrospective at the Louvre, Paris – the first held in that museum for a living female artist – and she was at the forefront of avant-garde debates in Paris. Her work shows the influence of (and itself influenced) Robert Delaunay, as well as close associates such as Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp.
David Seidner and Sonia Delaunay, ‘Sonia Delaunay’, Bomb, vol.1, no.2, 1982, pp.18–20, 66.
Stanley Baron with Jacques Damase, Sonia Delaunay: The Life of an Artist, New York 1995.
Anne Montfort and Cécile Godefroy, Sonia Delaunay, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2015, reproduced pp.240–1.
Supported by Christie’s.