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Color theory in art and fashion: Sonia Delaunay


Rythme couleur, Opus 972, 1962

Sonia Delaunay

Gouache, pastel and pencil on paper

22¼ x 30⅜ in.


Sonia Delaunay (b. 1885) was a painter and clothing designer who, along with her husband, created simultané, an art movement based on color theory and geometry.


Within her lifetime, Delaunay journeyed from childhood poverty in Ukraine to the heights of the Parisian art and fashion worlds. She was an artist, business owner, wife and mother balancing all roles like few have. And in the end, she established a place for herself, and her husband, in the art historical canon.


“Just as, in written poetry, it is not the way the words are put together that counts, but the mystery of creation that gives, or does not give, an emotion…so with colors, it is poetry and the mystery of an inner life that emerges, radiates and communicates. On that basis, we can freely create a new language.”





Delaunay was born in 1885 in Odessa, Ukraine. At age 5, due to the financial struggles of her parents, she was sent to St. Petersburg, Russia to live with her uncle. There, she was raised and exposed to renowned international art collections. She also showed talent as an artist. With the help of her teachers, Delaunay convinced her uncle to support her education abroad at the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Arts in Germany and later the Academie de la Palette in France.


After she completed her studies in 1908, Delaunay faced returning to Russia, which she didn’t want to do. She loved Paris and its bourgeoning modern art scene. She arranged a marriage to the art dealer Wilhelm Uhde, which served two purposes. First, she would be able to stay in France. Second, Uhde could mask his homosexual lifestyle, which at the time, wasn’t tolerated in many social circles. During their brief marriage, Uhde helped kickstart Delaunay’s career by organizing her first solo exhibition. Her early work was inspired by fauvist painters known for their bold use of color. Also through Uhde, Delaunay met her future husband and true partner, Robert. Sonia and Robert fell in love and conceived a child. She amicably divorced Uhde in 1910. Sonia and Robert Delaunay would be dedicated partners for the next 31 years.




Yellow Nude, 1908

Sonia Delaunay



In her son’s infancy, Delaunay began experimenting with quilt-making. She became fascinated by the infinite possibilities of color combinations, and her eyes were opened to the world of fabric design. Robert also took keen interest in color, a devoted follower of color theorist Eugène Chevreul. Together, they developed a style which involved geometric shapes filled with different primary and secondary color combinations, designed to stimulate emotional “vibrations”. Their style became known as Orphism or simultané.


In the early years of their partnership, the Delaunays frequently hosted artists, poets and other creatives during weekly Sunday dinners at their home. These interactions formed a network and spurred a spirit of collaboration that the Delaunays would soon need. The onset of WWI put their Sunday soirees on hold, as property owned by the Delaunays in St. Petersburg was seized during the Russian revolution. In need of income, the ever-industrious Sonia opened her first clothing boutique in 1918 and started working as a costume designer for theater and dance productions. In 1921, she opened a shop in Paris with notable patrons like Gloria Swanson, then a silent film star. In 1925, she began a commercial collaboration with Holland-based department store Metz & Co that would last more than three decades. She also collaborated with poet Tristan Tzara to create a series of “dress-poems” with designs featuring color combinations inspired by his words.



Coat for Gloria Swanson, 1925

Sonia Delaunay

Woolen embroidery



Delaunay’s painting practice took a back seat to her husband’s during his lifetime. But she always considered her design work on the same level as her painting. “For me there is no gap between my painting and my so-called ‘decorative’ work. I never considered the ‘minor arts’ to be artistically frustrating: on the contrary, it was an extension of my art.”



Les Toupies, Project De Costumes, Paris, 1922

Sonia Delaunay

Pencil, ink, watercolor, gouache on paper

11 x 14 in



After Robert passed away in 1941, Sonia Delaunay organized a series of exhibitions and retrospectives to solidify her husband’s standing in the art world. She then focused on building her own painting practice. Late in life, she received recognition both in France and abroad for her artistic contributions. A piece of her work was given to Richard Nixon by then French president Pompidou as a gift. She became the first living female artist to have a retrospective at the Louvre in 1964. And she was named an officer of the French Legion of Honor, France’s highest military or civilian honor society, in 1975. The Orphism style co-created and promoted by the Delaunays inspired the work of Paul Klee and Bridget Riley, among others.


See more examples of Sonia and Robert Delaunay’s work:



References:

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