Delaunay, Sonia (1885–1979)

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Delaunay, Sonia (1885–1979)

Russian-born abstract artist who was intimately involved in the development of modern art movements, such as Orphism and Dadaism, and largely responsible for the utilization of modern artistic concepts in 20th-century design and fashion. Name variations: Sonia Terk; Sonia Uhde; Sonia Delaunay-Terk or Terk-Delaunay. Born Sophie Stern on November 14, 1885, in Gradzihsk, Ukraine; died on December 5, 1979, in Paris; daughter of Elie Stern (a factory worker) and Anne (Terk) Stern; raised from age five by uncle Henri Terk (a lawyer); attended University in Karlsruhe, Germany, 1903–05; studied at the Académie de la Palette in Paris; married Wilhelm Uhde, in 1908 (divorced 1910); married Robert Delaunay, in 1910; children: Charles Delaunay (b. January 18, 1911).

Moved to Paris (1905); established studio (1906); painted first Simultaneous Contrasts (1912); produced first simultaneous clothing (1913); opened Casa Sonia and designed costumes for ballet Cléopatre (1918); designed costumes for production of Aïda (1920); established Atelier Simultané (1924); decorated Boutique Simultanée for the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts (1925); published Sonia Delaunay: Compositions, Couleurs, Idées (1930); portfolio of works by Delaunay, Arps, and Magnelli published (1950); had solo exhibition in Paris (1953); appointed Chevalier des Arts and des Lettres (1958); first major traveling exhibition in North America organized by National Gallery of Canada (1965); published Colored Rhythms (1966); received Legion of Honor (1975).

Major works:

(illustrations) Blaise Cendrars' La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913), Tristan Tzara's Juste Présent (1961); (lithographs) "10 Origin" (1942), "Album With Six Prints" (1962); (murals) Les Voyages lointains (1937), Portugal (1937); (paintings) Le Bal Bullier, 1913 (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris), Rythme coloré,

1946 (Collection of Cohen family, New York), and Triptyque, 1963 (The Tate Gallery, London).

On July 6, 1923, the Dadaist drama The Evening of the Bearded Heart was staged at the Theâtre Michel, in Paris, by Tristan Tzara, the champion of Dada. The Dada movement was being challenged for leadership of the avantgarde by the Surrealist movement, led by André Breton, and on the night of the show the conflict became heated. After repeated interruptions failed to stop the performance, Breton leapt on stage and broke the lead actor's arm with a blow from his cane. With that, Tzara joined Breton on stage, and the two fought until the police arrived. Shortly after the agitators were led off and the theater had been quelled, Paul Eluard bolted from his seat and dashed to the stage, smashing the footlights as he did so. Such was the volatile artistic community of 1920s' Paris, and at its heart was Sonia Delaunay, the designer of the radical costumes for the eventful performance.

Beauty refuses to submit to the constraint of meaning or description.

—Sonia Delaunay

She was born Sophie Stern in a small rural Ukrainian village, Gradizhsk, and her early childhood was spent surrounded by the natural beauty of the region. At age five, however, for reasons unknown, she moved to St. Petersburg, and the bulk of the rest of her life was spent in urban environments. Sophie, who was always known as Sonia, became the adopted daughter of her maternal uncle Henri Terk, a prosperous lawyer, and took his surname. Her life in St. Petersburg was one of privilege and luxury. The Terk family, while Jewish, did not suffer directly from the repression of Jews in late 19th-century Russia. Sonia traveled in Europe with her family, and this, added to instruction from her governesses, resulted in her learning French, English, and German at a young age. She also showed promise as a painter and studied art with dedication and sensitivity. In 1903, on the recommendation of her drawing teacher, she went to study under Ludwig Schmid-Reutte, who emphasized drawing, at the university in Karlsruhe, Germany. Here, she first learned of the Impressionists. Finding their work close to her own feeling about art, she determined to expose herself to their environment and moved to Paris.

Like so many artists, Delaunay was captivated by the city and spent most of her life there. Arriving in 1905, she enrolled in classes at the Académie de la Palette, where the structured method of teaching a range of approaches was not comfortable for Delaunay, who had a firm vision of her only artistic direction. Instead, she left the school, set up her own studio, and became part of a circle of young artists and poets, many of them also from Russia, who were interested in the avant-garde. One of her friends, painter Elizabeth Epstein , introduced her to Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, two of the most influential members of the Expressionist movement. Pressure from Sonia's family to return home and marry led her to propose marriage, of a convenient nature, to Wilhelm Uhde, a gallery owner and friend. They were married in London in 1908. That same year, she had her first solo exhibition, showing works influenced by Impressionist concerns with light and color but different in execution, principally because her concern was mainly with color. Delaunay was determined to find her own style at a time when Fauvism, a technique also focusing on the importance of pure color, was the rage in Paris. Her circle of acquaintances in artistic circles continued to widen, as she met both Picasso and Braque in 1909.

During the years 1907 to 1910, Sonia developed a relationship with Robert Delaunay that was initially based on mutual interests in the future of art, but which eventually led Sonia to divorce Wilhelm Uhde, who was as amicable about this as about the marriage. She married Robert Delaunay in November of 1910; in January 1911, their son Charles Delaunay was born. The work of Robert and Sonia Delaunay was for many years inseparably linked in the eyes of the art world, with most of the attention focused on Robert. This fact obscured the importance of Sonia Delaunay to modern art, as well as her role in the formation of the artistic style that they shared. Following her first exhibition, Delaunay did not show her work in a gallery again until 1953, but in that period she established herself as a major influence on modern art, and particularly design.

From 1910 to 1912, Delaunay devoted much of her time to exploring the avenues for artistic expression in embroidery and textiles. By 1912, however, she was returning to painting as her principal art form, her work concentrating on the use of color, free from figurative constraints. She was one of many artists and writers in Paris interested in reflecting the realities of the modern world in their art, among them Marc Chagall. Delaunay became close friends with Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the most prominent 20th-century French poets. In 1913, she also met Blaise Cendrars, referring to him in 1962 as "the truest and greatest poet of our time." Delaunay illustrated an edition of Cendrars' poem about the Eiffel Tower, the Prose du Transsibérien, with mainly abstract designs. Sixty-two copies were printed, each somewhat different, the culmination of Delaunay's interest in book-cover design. Evolving from this project, Delaunay developed the concept of posterpoems, merging words with her designs based on her theory of simultaneity. Her concept of simultaneous art was that art depicts the essence of movement; in this, she differed from the effort of the Futurists to portray a sequence of movement simultaneously. Cendrars, who was a great supporter of this work, referred to himself as the poet of the simultaneous.

Eventually, the letters themselves controlled the composition of her works, and Delaunay recognized the obvious commercial applicability of her posters. She began a series of designs for such companies as Pirelli and Dubonnet. In 1913, the Delaunays were included in the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon, a major exhibition of avant-garde art and objects. Sonia Delaunay's paintings were shown along with her book covers, posters, and textile projects. About the same time, she began work on Prismes électriques ("Electric Prisms"), an oil painting reminiscent of her collage work, which was submitted to the Salon des Independants of 1914. By 1915, Apollinaire had popularized the term Orphic to describe the work of both of the Delaunays, and the brief movement associated with them remains known as Orphism. Orphism introduced pure color into Cubist-influenced art, exemplified most in the work of Robert Delaunay and Marc Chagall; Orphism also influenced the Futurists in Italy and the Expressionists in Germany and Russia. After visiting Delaunay in Paris in 1912, a young Russian academic named Smirnoff delivered a lecture on the simultaneous in St. Petersburg.

As part of their involvement with the fashionable artistic class in Paris, the Delaunays patronized the Bullier, a popular dance hall where the new rages of the tango and foxtrot could be observed. Delaunay, who did not care to dance, portrayed the dancers at the Bullier as a rolling sea of color, with the individuals undifferentiated, in her Le Bal Bullier of 1913.

In 1915, after some time spent in Spain, the Delaunays settled in Portugal, where they had found a circle of like-minded artists and intellectuals. Initially, they shared a villa with Sam and Vianna Halpert in Vila do Conde, then in 1916 they moved to Valenca do Minho, on the border with Spain. In Valenca, Delaunay designed the decoration for the façade of a local chapel; though the project was not completed, the designs rendered as part of the process were some of Delaunay's most interesting figurative works. The year 1916 saw a major exhibition of Delaunay's work in Oslo and Stockholm, for which she designed the cover of the exhibition catalogue. In October of 1917, the Delaunays' lives were drastically altered by the Russian Revolution; though she was a fervent supporter of the revolution, it cost Delaunay the income from the rent of 80 apartments in St. Petersburg, which in fact represented most of her total earnings. The Delaunays moved to Madrid, where they felt they could earn a better living as artists. Once again, Sonia was determined to explore the commercial value of her many experiments with artistic expression in design and decoration.

In Madrid, Delaunay made the acquaintance of Serge Diaghilev, head of the Russian Ballet, who eventually commissioned Robert to design the sets and Sonia the costumes for the company's revival of Cleopatra, which was to be staged in London. To create the costumes, which bore only slight resemblance to historical dress, Delaunay allowed the full expression of her approach to shape and color. The success of the ballet resulted in several other commissions for her, including costumes for a 1920 production of Aïda at the Teatro Liceo in Barcelona.

Sonia Delaunay became familiar with society circles in Madrid, a fact that encouraged her to start her own boutique, the Casa Sonia, to champion modern sensibilities in interior design. The shop was also to carry her jewelry, which like all her work embodied her approach to art, particularly her "simultaneous necklaces." Although this boutique is referred to by some authors as though it actually functioned, Delaunay herself noted in 1967 that it had never in fact opened. While engaged in this project, she also began accepting commissions to decorate homes, as well as the Petit Casino, a theater that opened in 1919. However, the Delaunays were drawn to the Paris art scene; they were excited by the ideas of the surrealists, with whom they corresponded. Also, despite her growing success as a designer, Delaunay was finding it difficult to progress as an artist in Spain. In 1921, the Delaunays returned to Paris.

There, the Delaunays' apartment became an example of the integration of art into all aspects of everyday life, a reflection of her approach, and compatible with the notions of the Dadaists that were in vogue. Thus, the Delaunays were more welcome in the Parisian artistic circle of the '20s than artists who had been Cubists, or followed other artistic modes declared dead by the Dadaists. Hosting weekly gatherings of like-minded artists, Sonia Delaunay invited the guests to contribute to the decor themselves; the results were a startling mix of Dada and Surreal efforts. Among the many prominent artists involved were Man Ray, Jean Arp, and Chagall. By 1922, Delaunay was again decorating professionally. She began to produce and sell simultaneous scarves that both displayed her characteristic artistic motifs and exemplified her dedication to the applied arts. So, also, did her "Dress-poems," in which original poems were an integral part of the design of clothes. She applied her concept of simultaneity to the costumes she designed for Tzara's ill-fated performance of The Evening of the Bearded Heart.

The turning point in Delaunay's career, the event that cemented her future as a crucial figure in 20th-century fashion, was the 1923 request from a fabric manufacturer that she submit some designs to them. Her involvement in applying her work on shape and color to textile design led Delaunay to set up her own printing workshop to control the quality of the resulting fabric. The Atelier Simultané was opened in 1924 and produced a unique line of designs, mostly on silk, which focused on the use of a small number of vibrant colors in each textile, and a range of geometric shapes more diverse than the circles of her earlier work. Delaunay's fabrics soon became popular among the highly fashion conscious in both Europe and America.

At the International Exhibition of Decorative arts in Paris in 1925, Delaunay provided her works for the Boutique Simultanée, including fabrics, clothes, and accessories. Distinct from the other Art Deco approaches to design, it was Delaunay's sensibility that became the most influential in the sphere of fashion. In 1927, she gave a lecture at the Sorbonne on the influence of painting on fashion design. She expressed the need for fashion to change, to emphasize "not inspiration derived from the past, but grappling with the subject as if everything begins anew each day." In 1930, the album entitled Sonia Delaunay: Compositions, Couleurs, Idées was published. Her era of greatest success, however, was cut short by the Depression, a fact that did not disappoint her that much, as business was not to her taste; after 1930, Delaunay returned to being primarily a painter.

Sonia Delaunay explored a number of unusual artistic mediums during the 1920s and '30s, including the use of electric lighting as media. Her project for an illuminated advertisement for Zig-Zag cigarettes won a prize for publicity murals in 1936. In 1937, she was involved again with an international exhibition in Paris, this time emphasizing "arts and technics." While Robert designed the air and railway pavilions for the exhibition, Sonia completed three murals for the air pavilion on the theme of the airplane, and two others for the railway pavilion: Les Voyages lointains (which earned a medal) and Portugal.

With the outbreak of war, the Delaunays moved south, first to Auvergne, then to Midi, and finally to Mougins. In 1941, Robert Delaunay died of cancer; Sonia spent many years organizing exhibitions to preserve and enhance his reputation as a painter. She moved to Grasse, where she lived with the Arps and Magnellis until 1943, and alone for a short period after they left. In 1942, Delaunay produced a series of lithographs with Jean Arp, Sophie Tauber-Arp , and Alberto Magnelli, which were eventually published in 1950. In 1945, she returned to Paris and exhibited with the Art Concret group. In 1947, she participated in the "Tendencies of Modern Art" exhibition, which included 20 artists, including Arp. In 1948, she took part in two smaller exhibits, also including Arp and Tauber-Arp. She joined the artistic group Espace in 1952, and in the same year she had a solo exhibition at the Galerie Bing in Paris. In 1954, she exhibited again with the Grasse group (Arp, Tauber-Arp, and Magnelli) at the Galerie Bing. In 1955, she participated in the "Great Women Artists" exhibition at the Delius Gallery, New York, was awarded the Grand Prix Lissone from Italy in 1955, and a major exhibition of her works toured Italy, Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Brazil. She was active in numerous other exhibitions during the late 1950s and early 1960s, including an exhibition devoted to international collage in Houston in 1958.

The first major Delaunay exhibition in North America, including works from Sonia and Robert, was mounted in 1965 by the National Gallery of Canada. In 1966, the book Rhythms-Colors was published, containing poems by Jacques Damase and pochoirs (stencils) by Sonia Delaunay; this work was indicative of Delaunay's long involvement with the integration of poetry and art. Another example of her diversity was the issue of two large tapestries of her design by Gobelins (the premier French tapestry factory) in 1966. A large retrospective exhibition, containing 197 of her works, was mounted at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, in 1967. In 1969, Dress-Poems, another collaboration with Damase, was published, and she received the international grand prize at the Salon International de la Femme, in Cannes.

In 1970, the album With Myself was published, containing ten of Delaunay's etchings, and in 1973 the volume Illuminations by Rimbaud was released, with 18 pochoirs by Delaunay. Her 1969 oil painting Rhythme couleur, No. 1633 was presented by the president of France to the president of the United States in 1970. She received the Grand Prize of the City of Paris in 1973, and in 1975 she was named officer of the Legion of Honor. Projects and exhibitions continued during the 1970s, including the 1977 publication of Tzara's La coeur du gaz illustrated with ten lithographs by Delaunay. Sonia Delaunay died on December 5, 1979, ending nearly 70 years of intense involvement with modern art. Her fascination with the methods of connecting art to all other aspects of culture led to her substantial impact on 20th-century notions of fashion and design.


Buckberrough, Sherry A. Sonia Delaunay: A Retrospective. Buffalo, NY: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1980.

Cohen, Arthur A. Sonia Delaunay. NY: Harry Abrams, 1975.

——, ed. The New Art of Colour: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay. NY: Viking, 1978.

Damase, Jacques. Sonia Delaunay: Rhythms and Colors. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1972.

Madsen, Axel. Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Nemser, Cindy. Conversations with 12 Women Artists. NY: Scribner, 1975.

suggested reading:

Delaunay, Sonia. Nous Irons Jusqu'au Soleil. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, 1978.

Dorival, Bernard. Sonia Delaunay. Paris: Editions Jacques Damase, 1980.

Morano, Elizabeth. Sonia Delaunay: Art Into Fashion. NY: George Braziller, 1986.

related media:

Sonia Delaunay: Prises de Vues pour une Monographie, film, 1972.


Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris.

William MacKenzie , Department of History, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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Delaunay, Sonia (1885–1979)

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Delaunay, Sonia (1885–1979)