Robert Delaunay

Robert Delaunay

A painter, an art movement leader, and a great collaborator to his wife, Sonia, Robert Delaunay was notable for his use of geometric shapes and bold colors. Similar to Frantisek Kupka and Mark Rothko, the French artist was also a pioneer of abstract art in his own and unique way. He introduced Orphism art movement which is derived from the elements of Cubism and Orphic art to affect warmer and softer motions on the painting. The movement simply aims at abstracting Cubism in a way that would give the artists a new approach to using colors and shapes without any obvious forms and figures.

Robert Delaunay was one of the first painters to produce a completely abstract painting in 1912. Although at the time, Frantisek Kupka was increasingly becoming a sensation for his Amorpha painting, Delaunay was on his way to introducing a new art movement that would take the Paris art scene by storm. When Orphism was born, artists were given the option to combine three different styles that had been predominant at the moment such as Cubism, Fauvism, and Futurism. No wonder it was well-received by his contemporaries and art critics, and soon many have followed this movement.

Through Orphism, Robert Delaunay was able to explore the possibilities of color contrasts as the focal point of a painting. The colors are supposed to add value to both realistic and idealistic perception of a spectator by showing more depth, symbols, and some room for the imagination. He was also one of the few artists who have explored the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors and its effects, which was introduced by Michel Eugene Chevreul, a chemist. What came out of this study was a series of paintings such as The Eiffel Tower (1910), Tours de Laon (1912), Simultaneous Windows on the City (1912), Sun, Tower, Airplane (1913), Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon (1913), and Champs de Mars: La Tour Rouge (1923).

In addition to this, here are some more notable works by Robert Delaunay:

  • Circular Forms (1930)
  • Portrait de Jean Metzinger (1906)
  • Paysage au disque (1906 to 1907)
  • Le Premier Disque (1913)
  • Nature morte au vase de fleurs (1907)
  • Autoportrait (1906)
  • L’Equipe de Cardiff (1913)
  • Tour Eiffel (1926)
  • Portuguese Woman (1916)
  • Nu a la toilette (1915)

Early Life

Robert Victor Felix Delaunay was born in April 12, 1885 in Paris, France. He was the son of an aristocrat, Countess Berthe Felicie de Rose and George Delaunay. At an early age he went through the effects of growing up to a broken family. He was sent to live with his maternal aunt, Marie, in La Ronchere, Bourges until his early adulthood.

Robert Delaunay’s interest in becoming a professional artist began in early 1900’s. Old enough to decide for himself, he decided to enter the atelier of Ronsin to study decorative arts with the support of his uncle, Charles Damour. Off he went to Belleville in 1902 to meet up with Ronsin and begin with work. However, by the time he reached 19, he was convinced that he could never become a decorative artist, but a person who must be solely dedicated to painting.

Early Career

In 1904, the Salon des Independants accepted his six paintings to be a part of that year’s exhibition. The said show marked the beginning of his artistic pursuits, officially and professionally. He had then journey across Brittany to join the Pont-Aven group of painters. He would stay there in the next couple of years where he was inspired to produce paintings for the 1906 Salon des Independants exhibition. In the said event he met Henri Rousseau and Jean Metzinger. His works during this period look reminiscent of Impressionism but as soon as he decided to move away from academic art, he began exploring the abstract elements of color.

As early as 1905, Robert Delaunay had been composing abstract paintings but most of which featured large spots of strong colors similar to Fauvist art works. It was only after 1910 when he realized the full potential of abstract art as a new movement; hence, the birth of his very own Orphism. Around 1906 and 1907, Delaunay may have been close friends with Metzinger whose association brought him exhibition offers. For one, he joined an art show with Metzinger organized by Berthe Weill in 1907 and the two artists made a mark in modern art history for painting a collage of cubes to form figurative and/or symbolic compositions.

Metzinger’s art though, in comparison to Delaunay was rather Neo-Impressionistic than abstract, whose influence is apparent in the latter’s portraits of Metzinger. According to art critic, Robert Herbert, “Metzinger’s Neo-Impressionist period was somewhat longer than that of Delaunay. At the Independants in 1905, his paintings were already regarded as in the Neo-Impressionist tradition by contemporary critics, and he apparently continued to pain in large mosaic strokes until some time in 1908. The height of his Neo-Impressionist work was in 1906 and 1907, when he and Delaunay did portraits of each other in prominent rectangles of pigment.”

Another notable similarities between the two artists is their theme and subject of paying homage “to the decomposition of spectral light that lay at the heart of Neo-Impressionist color theory”, which can be observed in Delaunay’s Paysage au disque of 1907. This could be the painter’s way of saying goodbye to the influences of Neo-Impressionism and former art styles as he moves on to a new movement whole heartedly.

Development of Robert Delaunay’s Abstract Art

From 1908 to 1913, Robert Delaunay was having the golden years of his career. This experience was leveraged by painting a series of paintings that included the following pieces:

  • Saint-Sevrin (1909-1910)
  • City Series (1909-1911)
  • The Eiffel Tower (1909-1912)
  • City of Paris (1911-1912)
  • Window series (1912-1914)
  • Cardiff Team (1913)
  • Circular Forms (1913)
  • The First Disk (1913)

These paintings eventually helped him lay the groundwork for his Orphism. One thing is clear during this period; he was moving towards pure abstraction. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise when he began painting non-figurative art works, which are all based on the optical qualities of strong colors. His color theory is meant to discover new dynamics and functions, an approach that would not necessarily require an artist to include forms and figures in his paintings.

The abstract experimentations began in 1912 until 1914 and by that time, Robert Delaunay had already become an icon to the likes of Morgan Russell, Paul Klee, Patrick Bruce, Macdonald Wright, Franz Marc, Lyonel Feininger, and August Macke. One of his most notable followers was Apollinaire whose painting style highly resembled that of Delaunay’s.

Color Theory

As Robert Delaunay was an art theorist, he produced several writings about color. A lot of his statements on colors were based on the various influences such as those of the scientists, art theorists, and artists that in some cases he would produce writings based on random beliefs. To him, color can stand on its own, meaning to say, it can evoke genuine emotions and help a spectator perceive a form. Because anyway, painting is a kind of visual art to begin with but it depends on the intellectual elements that an artist must deliver through proper treatment of light and color.

It cannot be denied that Delaunay’s earlier works are heavily influenced by Neo-Impressionism. For instance, in the Night Scene, the painter used motion-filled brushstrokes in vibrant colors. The background is painted with dark colors to add luminosity to the overall ambiance of the painting. However, the painting does not have a definite object which forces the spectator to focus his attention to the areas that surround this rather vague object in the middle.

From Neo-Impressionism, Delaunay shifted to painting a combination of fragments of objects and spatial effects such as seen in the Eiffel Tower series. The series may seem similar to Futurism and Analytical Cubism, but that is perhaps the point of Orphism; a fusion of various modern art influences, to bridge the gap between Cubism and Futurism, or any other types of predominant art style at the time.

World War I

In 1914, Robert Delaunay and his wife, Sonia, sought refuge in Fontarabie, Spain. After the war, instead of going back to Paris, they decided to settle in Madrid and a year later transferred to Portugal. There, they shared a house with Eduardo Viana and Samuel Halpert, who were friends with Amadeo de Souza Cardoso and Jose de Alamada Negreiros. The latter would become Delaunay’s business partner in their artistic pursuits.

When the Russian Revolution erupted, the then Sonia Terk was unable to receive financial support from his Russian family. Therefore, the couple must find another source of income to keep up with their expenses abroad. In 1917, Robert went back to doing decorative arts for the stage play, Cleopatra, produced by Sergei Diaghilev in Madrid. Sonia worked on the costume design while Robert focused on the set designs. Afterwards, he accepted an illustration job for Vicente Huidobro, and thus, the Tour Eiffel series was made.

Advanced Years in Paris

In 1921, Robert Delaunay returned to his birthplace. He resumed working on his abstract paintings, and these works served as his ticket to the 1937 World Fair in Paris. He also played a significant role in the event by working as a designer for the air travel booths and railway pavilions.


At the brink of the Second World War in the 1940’s, Robert and Sonia fled to Auvergne to avoid the German forces advancing towards France. However, the husband had already been weak at this point due to the complications of his cancer. Thus, Robert Delaunay succumbed to the disease on 25th of October 1941 while on his way to Montpellier. His body was re-interred at Gambais in 1952.