Sonia Delaunay:
Innovation and the Interwar Years

By Maryann De Julio

Sonia Delaunay was a multidisciplinary abstract artist and a key figure in the Parisian avant-garde in the early twentieth century. Alongside her husband, Robert Delaunay, she pioneered the movement Simultanism. Her exploration of the interaction between colors created a sense of depth and movement throughout her extensive body of work.

 

Sonia Delaunay’s vivid use of color and her inventive bold abstract patterns can be traced to her childhood in Russia and to her familiarity with traditional folklore. Born Sarah Stern in Gradizhsk, Ukraine, on November 14, 1885, she was adopted in 1890 by her maternal uncle, Henri Terk, and grew up in St. Petersburg, where Terk was a lawyer who could afford to give her a culturally rich childhood. With her uncle’s family she visited the Hermitage and traveled through Europe, where she visited important museums including the Uffizi in Florence, Italy; the Pinakothek in Munich, Germany; and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. 

She moved to Germany in 1904 to study drawing at the State Academy of Fine Arts Karlsruhe, and in 1906 she traveled to Paris, where she attended art classes at the Académie de la Palette, learning printmaking. Frequenting galleries and exhibitions in Paris, she became familiar with the work of Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, and Edouard Vuillard, as well as Fauvists Henri Matisse and André Derain.

During her first year in Paris, Sonia met Wilhelm Uhde, a German collector and art dealer, whom she married on December 5, 1908. Through Uhde’s Galerie Notre-Dame-des-Champs in Montparnasse, which gave Sonia her first solo exhibition, she met Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Robert Delaunay. After divorcing Uhde by mutual agreement, she married Delaunay in 1910. In January 1911, Sonia and Robert Delaunay’s son, Charles, was born. The colorful patchwork quilt that Sonia made for his cradle is her first abstract work; crafted of 70 rectangular and triangular pieces reminiscent of the bits of fabric she had seen in blankets in Russian peasants’ homes, it figures prominently in recent retrospectives of her work: Sonia Delaunay: Les Couleurs de l’abstraction, at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, and The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern in London. 

The Delaunays were on vacation in the Basque town of Fuenterrabía on the border of France and Spain when Germany declared war on France in August 1914, and they did not return to Paris until after 1920. Travel to Madrid and to the villages of Vila do Conde and Valença do Minho in Portugal inspired Sonia to paint market scenes and flamenco singers; she said living on the Iberian Peninsula had opened her eyes to the very origin of light. In Madrid, Sonia began her work in interior decoration at her boutique, Casa Sonia, in addition to fashion and costume design to support her household when financial support from family properties in St. Petersburg ceased with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, commissioned her to design costumes for the London production of his ballet Cléopâtre (1918) and Robert to design the stage sets after the originals were destroyed in a fire during a 1917 tour in Latin America.

Upon their return to Paris, the Delaunays frequented avant-garde circles, opening their home to Marc Chagall, Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, Philippe Soupault, Louis Aragon, André Breton, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Sonia set up a design studio in their apartment, employing Russian émigrée seamstresses to make scarves, dresses, and embroidered Simultanist coats. Sonia’s interest in simultaneous contrast—the influence of one color on another, how color contrasts suggest movement—dates from her early career, when she and Robert first pursued the study of color, influenced by theories of the French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul. She designed the fabrics, which she sold to textile firms or produced on her own. In 1925, she opened her own fashion house, Maison Delaunay, whose garments were adapted to the rhythms of modern life and offered women freedom of movement.

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Quilt cover stitched for her son Charles, 1911.

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 Sonia Delaunay wearing Casa Sonia creations, Madrid, c.1920.

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Market at Minho, oil and wax on canvas,1915.

The 1925 Paris Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes provided Sonia Delaunay with her fashion breakthrough: she presented her creations there in her Boutique Simultané, which she designed and decorated, set up on the Pont Alexandre III, and ran with the help of Jacques Heim, a prominent couturier and furrier who had suggested she make fur coats in geometric patterns. For Delaunay, there was no difference between her painting and her decorative art, which she viewed as the application of her research expanded into new domains. She first met Joseph de Leeuw, director of the Amsterdam department store Metz & Co., at the 1925 Exposition; Metz & Co. became a major customer and commissioned her textile designs for its own production from 1930 to 1934. One of the many orders that resulted from Sonia’s presentation at the Exposition was a woolen embroidered coat for the American film star Gloria Swanson. The Wall Street stock market crash in October 1929 forced Sonia to close her unprofitable Maison, but she continued to create and sell fabric designs under her trademark Tissus Delaunay.

During this time Sonia created her Simultaneous Dresses, a mix of squares and triangles of taffeta, tulle, flannelette, moiré, and corded silk. In the 1920s, she launched her famous Poem-Dresses, words and colors in ever-new relationships through body movement, with her friend Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist poet. Because of the brightly colorful abstraction, Sonia Delaunay’s fabric patterns and carpet designs on display at the Exposition were characterized as “an extremely modernist branch of Art Deco.”1

 

Sonia’s textile designs included checks, blocks, stripes, circles, abstract shapes, and flowers. Some flower motifs recall folk art, while others reflect the stylized visual language of Art Deco. Red, green, blue, black, and white were the hallmark colors of her palette, though she sometimes used pastel hues in combination, or strong colors mixed with soft or somber tones.2 Through her fabrics, which were exercises in color, Sonia made modern art a part of daily life.

 

Renowned for her fabrics and clothing, Sonia was invited to deliver a lecture at the Sorbonne on January 27, 1927, where she introduced the revolutionary concept of prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear), based on the tissu-patron (fabric pattern) standardization that allowed simultaneously printing the pattern of the dress and its corresponding textile design, patented by Robert Delaunay, and first executed by Sonia in collaboration with the Maison Redfern. In 1936, the Delaunays joined with a collective of architects and 50 unemployed artists commissioned to prepare murals for the 1937 Exposition internationale des arts et techniques dans la vie moderne, backed by Léon Blum’s Popular Front (anti-fascist) government (1936–1938). Sonia and Robert painted murals for two temporary exhibition buildings, the Palais de l’Air and the Pavillon des Chemins de fer. Portugal, which Sonia painted for the temporary railroad exhibition pavilion, was awarded a gold medal and acquired by the French government.

 

The Delaunays were ardent promoters of abstract art: they became members of the Abstraction-Création group in 1931, formed as an alternative to the figurative tendencies of André Breton’s Surrealists, and in 1939, they helped organize the first Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, which promoted formal purity and non-objectivity in art. As the Germans approached Paris in June 1940, Sonia and Robert left the region for the unoccupied south of France. After Robert died of cancer in October 1941, Sonia joined Jean Arp and Alberto Magnelli and their families in Grasse. Continuing to support abstract art, she worked to reestablish Robert’s reputation with a number of exhibitions of his work and bequests of his work and hers to public institutions. In 1964, she became the first living woman artist to have a retrospective, Donation Delaunay, at the Louvre, thanks to her donation of 117 works by herself and Robert.

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Simultaneous Dresses (Three Women, Forms, Colours), oil on canvas, 1925.

Woolen embroidered coat made for Gloria Swanson, 1924.

By the time Sonia Delaunay died at home in Paris on December 5, 1979, she had received the Légion d’honneur in 1975 for her contribution to French art and design.3 From the beginning, her radically new creations in multiple media stood out among the Russian émigré community in Paris. She came full circle with the display of her art at the 1979 exhibition Paris-Moscow, 1900–1930 at the Centre Pompidou, to which she had donated her entire body of graphic work. Sonia once said in a television interview, “I always changed everything around me . . . I have done everything. I have lived my art.”4

About the Author:

Maryann De Julio is a professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies at Kent State University, Ohio. She writes on literature and the other arts and is a translator of French and Italian literature.

 

Endnotes:

Norbert Wolf, Art Deco (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2013), p. 169.

Petra Timmer, “Sonia Delaunay: Fashion and Fabric Designer,” in Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay, Matilda McQuaid and Susan Brown, editors (New York:  Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum, 2011), pp. 50-51.

In 1964, Sonia Delaunay was named Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur; in 1975, she was promoted to Officer.

Television interview for Spectrum, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, October 29, 1967.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Winter 2021. View a digital version of the full journal here.