Robert Delaunay

Study for ‘The City’


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Robert Delaunay 1885–1941
Original title
Study for 'La Ville'
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 883 × 1245 mm
frame: 1027 × 1386 × 85 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1958

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This painting is part of an early series of works by Delaunay on the subject of the city. It was inspired by a postcard photograph of the rooftops of Paris taken from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and looking towards the Eiffel Tower. It appears to have been a study for a more finished painting which is now known only in reproduction, and which included the Eiffel Tower at the top of the composition. It is possible that this study also originally included the Eiffel Tower at the top and was at some point cut down by the artist.

Gallery label, July 2007

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Catalogue entry

Robert Delaunay 1885-1941

T00217 Study for 'La Ville' (The City) 1909-10

Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 34 3/4 x 49 (88 x 1245)
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1958
Prov: Sonia Delaunay, Paris; with Galerie Beyeler, Basle, 1955; with Matthiesen Gallery, London; Friends of the Tate Gallery
Exh: Robert Delaunay, Galerie Beyeler, Basle, March-April 1956 (9) as 'Ville' 1909; R. Delaunay, Städtisches Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, June-July 1956 (21); Kunstverein, Freiburg i. Br., July-August 1956 (21); Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, May-September 1957 (18)
Lit: Robert Delaunay, Du Cubisme à l'Art Abstrait (Paris 1957), No. 71, pp.107-9, 257 as 'Ville. Première Etude' 1909; Johannes Langner, 'Zu den Fenster-Bildern von Robert Delaunay' in Jahrbuch der Hamburger Kunstsammlungen, 1962, pp.67-74; Angelica Zander Rudenstine, The Guggenheim Museum Collection: Paintings 1880-1945 (New York 1976), Vol.1, pp.85-7, 93-6
Repr: Studio, CLIX, 1960, p.109; Michel Hoog, R. Delaunay (Paris 1976), p.5 in colour

This picture was found cut into two parts, a left-hand section 88 x 58cm and a right-hand section 89 x 69cm, which were reunited in 1955 at the time of the relining. It is evidently an early work from his series known as 'The City', and has been exhibited and reproduced since 1955 under the incorrect title 'The City. First Study' and dated 1909. It does not seem to have been exhibited in Delaunay's lifetime.

Johannes Langner has shown with the help of Sonia Delaunay that the starting-point for this series was a picture postcard with a photograph taken from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, looking across the roof tops of Paris towards the Eiffel Tower, with the Avenue Kléber on the right and the Avenue léna on the left. As Angelica Rudenstine has pointed out, the earliest version appears to be an unfinished oil study on the back of a painting of Saint-Séverin in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Habasque No.44), which was covered over and lost to view when the picture was relined, but of which photographs exist. An unpainted area at the top right is inscribed '2e étude | Saint-Séverin | 1909 | r. delaunay | Paris'. Although this inscription relates to the painting on the other side of the canvas, it would appear to have been added after work on the study for 'The City' had ended and would therefore suggest that it too was painted in 1909. Closely related to it is an oil sketch on hardboard 80 x 68cm in the Kunstmuseum, Winterthur (Habasque No.73), which is inscribed on the back 'R. delaunay 1909 Paris etude pour la Ville'. This introduces the first signs of a dynamic distortion not present in the Minneapolis version in that the walls of the building in the foreground have begun to bulge.

The Tate's picture, which is much more complete and detailed than either of these, and has more distortion, appears to have been painted shortly before a version of 'The City', now lost, which is reproduced in Kunstblatt, I, 1917, p.75. Langner convincingly identifies the latter as Habasque No.72, a picture which was first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in March 1910 as 'Ville', n.d.; then at the first Blaue Reiter exhibition in Munich, December 1911-January 1912 (where it was bought by Jawlensky) as 'Die Stadt' 1910; and later at Delaunay's Galerie Barbazanges exhibition in Paris in February-March 1912 where it was dated 1909. Rudenstine, who draws attention to several inaccuracies in the Galerie Barbazanges catalogue, considers that all these works were probably painted in 1910, 'although a date of late 1909 for some of them cannot be ruled out.' Her dating of 1910 for the Minneapolis and Winterthur versions is open to argument, but the evidence does on balance suggest that the present work was painted either early in 1910 or in the winter of 1909-10.

Both Langner and Rudenstine suggest that this picture was probably a detailed study for the lower part of the lost painting bought by Jawlensky, which was exhibited at the Galerie Barbazanges as 'The City-No.1.' The two pictures have much in common and must have been painted within a short time of one another; but the Jawlensky version accentuates the distortions, particularly of the building in the foreground, and leads on to the next version of 'The City' now in the Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.

Although Sonia Delaunay believed that the Tate's picture never had an upper section, there is evidence to suggest that it may originally have been an upright composition and included the Eiffel Tower at the top, like all the others ('The City No.3' of 1911-12 is landscape-shaped, but nevertheless also includes the entire composition, compressed vertically). Close examination of the canvas, which is very thin, shows signs of stretching curves caused by nails at both sides and confirms that 125cm must have been its original width, but the top seems to have been cut off and could have extended considerably further. There seems a possibility therefore that this picture, which is at least as detailed as the one bought by Jawlensky, was originally painted not as a study but as the first fully finished version of this theme, and that Delaunay was afterwards dissatisfied with it and first cut off the top section, then divided the remainder into two parts. One reason for doing this might have been that the composition, with its block-like forms, has a very pronounced sense of recession which conflicts with Delaunay's growing interest at that time in building the forms up towards the picture plane. The changes introduced in the Jawlensky version all help to contribute to this effect.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.158-60, reproduced p.158

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