Sonia Delaunay in front of her door-poem in the Delaunay's apartment, Boulevard Malesherbes, Paris 1924

Sonia Delaunay in front of her door-poem in the Delaunays’ apartment, Boulevard Malesherbes, Paris 1924 
© Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Who is she?

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 colours has created a sense of depth and movement throughout her oeuvre.

Sonia Delaunay, Propeller (Air Pavilion)

Sonia Delaunay 
Propeller (Air Pavilion) 1937
Skissernas Museum, Lund, Sweden 
© Pracusa 2014083
Photo: Emma Krantz

What is her background?

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’ colour and bright costumes of the Ukrainian peasant weddings.

How did she start her career as an abstract artist?

About 1911 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.

Fabric designed by Sonia Delaunay on the walls of the Delaunay family salon

Fabric designed by Sonia Delaunay on the walls of the Delaunay family salon, 1925
Courtesy Bibliothéque nationale de France, Paris

What does she do?

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.

What is Orphism?

Orphism is a term originating from 1912 when French poet and art critic Guillaume Appollinaire identified the new style of Cubist painting. Appollinaire was inspired by the work of František Kupka and the Delaunays, who, although channelling the Cubist vision, prioritised colour in their work. Appollinaire felt this use of colour 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.

What is Simultanism?

Simultanism is the strand of Orphism practised by the Delaunays. The name comes from the work of French scientist Michel Eugène Chevreul who identified the phenomenon of ‘simultaneous contrast’, in which colours look different depending on the colours 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.

wearing the Pierrot-Éclair costume designed by Sonia Delaunay, on the set of René Le Somptier’s film Le P’tit Parigot 1926

wearing the Pierrot-Éclair costume designed by Sonia Delaunay, on the set of René Le Somptier’s film Le P’tit Parigot 1926
© Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Is she religious?

For a very long time I hadn’t believed in God, but I 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 recognise. 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.

Where has she exhibited her work?

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.

Sonia Delaunay, Prismes electriques 1914

Sonia Delaunay 
Prismes electriques 1914 
Centre Pompidou Collection, Mnam / Cci, Paris 
© Pracusa 2013057 

What are her key artworks?

Prismes électriques (Electric Prisms), 1914, displays Delaunay’s trademark concentric circles at their best. Interpreted as an ode to modernity, Delaunay refracts the lights and bustle of Boulevard Saint Michel into almost complete abstraction. Everything disintegrates into colour except two figures, which remain discernible in the lower centre of the piece.

Nu jaune, 1908, juxtaposes the models’ warm yellow skin against lashings of cool emerald. This is one of Delaunay’s most striking uses of tone. The bright colours are frequently offset by black marks. These create a bold and heavy outline which is primitivist in its intention. The face of the model is mask like, suggesting melancholy. Delaunay makes no attempt to depict her as attractive, giving the artwork a brusque, modern feel.

Sonia Delaunay, Yellow Nude

Sonia Delaunay
Yellow Nude 1908
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes
 © Pracusa 2014083

What are her thoughts on colour?

Colour is the skin of the world.

Colour was the hue of number.

One who knows how to appreciate colour relationships, the influence of one colour on another, their contrasts and dissonances, is promised an infinitely diverse imagery.