Sonia Delaunay was a costume designer, a decorative artist, and a painter. Although she became more famous by association with her husband, Robert Delaunay, she became an esteemed artist by her own right and ways. In fact, Louvre Museum prepared a retrospective exhibition for her in 1964, making her the first female living artist to have such a kind of event.
Sonia Delaunay was also instrumental in Robert’s development of Orphism art movement before the First World War had erupted. With Orphism art as a major source of influence, Sonia’s paintings and designs are known for its geometric patterns, bold colors, and the use of color contrast technique. Her work can be classified simply as geometric abstract art, but in most cases, the canvas was fabrics, walls, pieces of furniture, and clothing articles.
The Russian-born artist had particularly raised the bar higher in modern art by abandoning traditional easel painting. She did this by re-inventing objects such as those mentioned above as her tools to experiment with theories of color. This was how she had also become a prolific textile and fashion designer, a field she totally had a claim on, while her contemporary Tamara de Lempicka ruled Art Deco.
Sonia’s interest in creating fragments of solid objects in her art began when she sewn her son a quilt blanket using different pieces of fabrics altogether. After it was finished, she found the experience to be hypnotic; when the fabrics are all sewn next to each other, it created a Cubist-like art work. From there on out, she realized the emotional prowess that a non-objective art work could evoke to a spectator and so she applied the same process to other materials and paintings. This helped her husband, the color theorist and painter Robert Delaunay, find another convincing way to establish Orphism as a new abstract art movement.
The concept was that the use of contrasting colors can create a movement that affects a person’s life (perspective) and thus, making a meaning of their own. Simply said, colors can move people emotionally and spiritually like how a person would react if he or she was standing before a tunnel that is either covered in total darkness or bursting with colors.
A few examples of Sonia Delaunay’s works include the following:
Baptized as Sarah Ilinitchana Stern, Sonia Delaunay was born in November 14, 1885 in a Russian Empire territory called Gradizhsk. The town is known today as Poltava Oblast in Ukraine. She was a daughter of a laborer at a nail factory but because of her family’s impoverished state, she was sent to live with her well-off maternal uncle, Henri Terk, in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Sonia would not become a legitimate Terk until her adoption papers had been completed in 1890. From then on, she assumed Sonia Terk as her real name and the benefits that came with it such as quality education and great upbringing afforded by the family. Additionally, at a young age, Sonia became acquainted with traveling as the Terks would often go to Finland and other parts of Europe during summer vacations. Her travels would prove to be a significant experience for she was able to see and observe many galleries and museums that sparked her interest in art.
At sixteen, Sonia Delaunay attended an esteemed secondary school in the city. One of her teachers took notice of her skill in drawing and so the school recommended her to study at an art school in Germany. The young designer was more than happy to oblige to the recommendation, and there she was by the time she reached 18, she entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. She was to stay in Germany until 1905 and then settled in Paris to embark on a life-long career.
In Montparnasse, Sonia Delaunay studied at the Academie de la Palette from 1905 to 1910. However, she felt unsatisfied with the method of teaching practiced by the instructors there so she did not come to class regularly. During those times she was not at school, she had been visiting galleries around the city to inspire herself.
Up until 1910, her works were heavily influenced by Gauguin, Derain, Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and H. Rousseau, all of whom were post-Impressionist artists. In her first year in Paris she met the man she would marry around two years later, the German art collector Wilhelm Uhde. As Uhde was a proclaimed homosexual, some say that the marriage may have been made out of convenience on Sonia’s part, to simply avoid the pressure and demands of her parents. Apparently, the Terks did not approve of her artistic career and had asked her to return to St. Petersburg.
On a lighter note, her marriage to Uhde gave her access to the vibrant Paris art scene. In every exhibition that her husband made during their marriage she was a part of it, allowing her to meet as many artists as possible. In return, Sonia helped him cover up his homosexuality to the public eye.
Robert Delaunay’s mother, Countess de Rose, would frequent the Udhe Gallery. In some instances, Robert would accompany his mother and that was how he met Sonia in 1909. April of that year, the two developed a deeper connection that led to a romantic relationship. Uhde and Sonia divorced by August 1910 finally and she moved on to marrying Robert on November 1910. At the time, the Russian-French artist was already pregnant, and their first son, Charles was born on January 1911.
Sonia thought that Robert was a poet who wrote with colors. Therefore, she worked with him, particularly with his concept of simultaneity and Orphism. When she made a patchwork quilt for a crib, she was surprised by the end-result; something similar to Cubist art. One could take it as a sign for Sonia to shift from doing impressionist art to style between cubism and abstract art.
In terms of Sonia’s style of placing pieces of fabric next to each other, it created an optical effect that the patches seemed to be mixed with each other and the blending of color evoked a certain emotion, “hypnotic” as to how Sonia described it. Art theorists call this style Pointillism.
Guillaume Apollinaire had been a serious follower of the Delaunay’s color theory. He went as far as coining a term for it in 1913; hence, the word Orphism (Orphic art and Cubism). Sonia met the scholar Blaise Cendrars through Apollinaire, who would become her newfound collaborator. The collaboration would be a productive one as she was really inspired by the poems of Cendrars, describing it as something that gave her a shock.
In 1913, Sonia Delaunay illustrated the Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France by Cendrar. She used simultaneous styles to merge the design and the poem, resulting to an abstract work of art. The painting was to become a part of the 1913 Autumn Salon in Berlin together with her other art works such as the clothing articles she designed. Through this exhibition, she gained the admiration of Paul Klee, particularly with the way she used squares and cubes to make a visual art representation of Cendrar’s poem.
To escape the German troops annexing to France, the Delaunays went to Spain in 1914. They share a home with their friends in Fontarabie in Madrid, Spain. Living overseas would prove to be difficult for the whole family because of the financial impact of the war and the Russian Revolution. When the revolution erupted her parents had to stop giving her financial support and so the spouses somewhat set aside their experimentations for a while and sought employment opportunities.
In 1915, the whole family moved to Portugal where they met an art collaborator, Jose de Almada Negreiros. There, she produced The Market at Minho in 1916 and attended a one-man show in Stockholm on that same year. In 1917 Russian theater producer, Sergei Diaghilev was in Madrid to produce Cleopatra. Robert and Sonia did not pass on the opportunity to work with Diaghilev as his stage designer and costume designer, respectively.
Aside from doing theatrical designs, Sonia Delaunay also accepted decorative art projects in Madrid. She was the person behind the décor of Petit Casino and Casa Sonia. She started selling her designs for interiors and fashion houses while staying at an office in Bilbao. In no time, she was to become the most sought-after artist in the Madrid Salon.
In 1920 Sonia Delaunay completely changed her focus from painting to decorative arts, particularly fashion. She event went as far as expressing her interest in starting out a new fashion business, which she told to Paul Poiret but the art patron declined to support this idea. Poiret believed that Sonia’s designs looked similar to his Ateliers de Martine.
By 1921, the Delaunays arrived in Paris and found a home in Boulevard Malesherbes 19. The financial state of the family at this point was quite challenging that they had to sell their The Snake Charmer painting by Henri Rousseau. Sonia Delaunay found employment opportunities with private clients, but recovered quickly in 1923 when he produced a large collection of textile designs for manufacturer based in Lyon.
This commission gave her the financial support she needed to open up a new business. She went with simultane as her registered trademark, showing how much of an influence simultaneous art had been to her. Throughout the 1920’s, Sonia Delaunay was the go-to fashion designer of many notable personalities such as Gloria Swanson, Gabrielle Dorziat, Nancy Cunard, and Lucienne Bogaert. She even had her own booth at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. Some film directors and stage play producers have availed her service to design and arrange sets and costumes for them.
In 1945, Sonia Delaunay was appointed member of the board to the Salon des Realities Nouvelles. She had also began doing charity works by donating 114 artworks she and her husband produced to the Musee National d’Art Moderne. Her works had been shown at the Louvre and was awarded the French Legion of Honor.
Sonia Delaunay died on 5 December 1979 in Paris at the age of 94, becoming one of the longest-living female artists of the century. Her remains were buried in Gambais next to her husband’s grave.