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Sonia Delaunay — queen of the twentieth-century avant-garde

Sonia Delaunay — queen of the twentieth-century avant-garde

Sonia Delaunay (November 14, 1885 – December 5, 1979) was a Ukrainian-born artist who spent the majority of her working life in Paris. She received formal experience in Germany before relocating to France and expanding her career to include textiles, couture, and set design. She co-founded the Orphism art style, which was known for its use of vibrant colors and geometric patterns, with her husband Robert Delaunay and others. She was the first living artist to have a retrospective show at the Louvre in 1964, and she was named an officer in the French Legion of Honor in 1975. Her contemporary design work encompassed geometric abstraction and the incorporation of furniture, fabrics, wall coverings, and clothes into her artistic practice.

Early years

Sarah Stern was born on November 14, 1885. Although she is widely acknowledged as having been born in Odesa, Ukraine, some resources point to Gradyzka, Ukraine (now Poltava region) as being her birthplace. Her father was a foreman of a nail factory. She relocated to St. Petersburg at a young age, where she was cared for by her maternal uncle Henry Terk. Henry, a successful and rich lawyer, and his wife Anna wanted to adopt Sonia, but her mother refused. Sonia was eventually successfully adopted by the Terks in 1890, after which she took the name Sonia Terk.  Her upbringing was privileged, having spent many summers traveling extensively around Europe and visiting leading art museums and galleries. When she was 16, she was enrolled in a prominent high school in St. Petersburg.

Upon her teacher’s recommendation, Sonia was sent to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe, Germany, at the age of 18. She studied in Germany until 1905 and then relocated to Paris.


Upon her arrival in Paris, Sonia enrolled at the Académie de La Palette in Montparnasse. She spent less time at the Academy and more time at the galleries of Paris because she was dissatisfied with the institution’s teaching methods, which she felt were excessively critical. Her personal work during this time period was highly influenced by the art she saw around her, including post-impressionist works by Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Henri Rousseau, as well as Fauvist works by Matisse and Derain. Sonia’s first marriage wasn’t one of love, but rather of convenience: in 1908, she married a German art dealer and gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde — while Uhde received a cover for his homosexuality, Sonia got access to her dowry and Uhde’s connections in the art world which allowed her to make a name for herself. 

Artist Robert Delaunay’s mother Countess de Rose was a frequent visitor at the Uhde Gallery, often accompanied by her son. In early 1909, Sonia Terk met artist Robert Delaunay. In April of the same  year, they began dating, prompting the decision for Sonia and Uhde’s divorce which was finalized in August 1910. Sonia, already pregnant, and Robert married shortly thereafter, on November 15, 1910. Charles, their son, was born two months later on January 18, 1911.

They received financial support from Sonya’s aunt in St. Petersburg. “I found a poet in Robert Delaunay,” Sonia wrote of Robert. “A poet who wrote not with words but with colours.”


In 1911, Sonia Delaunay created a colourful patchwork quilt for her son Charles’ crib. Now housed at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris,  the patchwork quilt was made in the spur of the moment utilizing geometry and color. 

“About 1911, I had the notion to sew a blanket out of scrap cloth for my newborn boy, similar to those I observed in the houses of Ukrainian peasants. It appeared to me that the pieces of material invoked cubist ideals, therefore we tried the same technique with additional objects and paintings.”

Sonia Delaunay

Contemporary art critics agree that this is the point at which she abandoned perspective and naturalism in her work. Around the same time, Cubist work was being presented in Paris, and Robert was studying Michel Eugène Chevreul’s color theories; they named their experiments with color in art and design simultanéisme. A simultaneous design happens when one design is placed next to another and influences both; this is analogous to color theory (Pointillism, as employed by, for example, Georges Seurat), in which dots of a primary color placed next to each other are “blended” by the eye and affect each other. Bullier’s Ball (1912-13), Sonia’s first large-scale painting in this style, was noted for its color and movement.

In 1913, Delaunay’s friend, poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, coined the name Orphism to represent his version of Cubism. Sonia met the poet Blaise Cendrars, who would become her companion and colleague, through Apollinaire in 1912. In an interview, Sonia Delaunay stated that discovering Cendrars’ art “gave me [her] a push, a shock.” She created a 2-meter pleated accordion book to accompany Cendrars’ poem “Prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Little Girl” (Prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and Little Jeanne of France) on the travel along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The book blended text and design using the concepts of simultaneous design. The book, which was almost completely distributed through subscription, generated quite a sensation among Parisian critics. The synchronous book was later presented at the Salon d’Automne in Berlin in 1913, alongside paintings and other works of applied art such as costumes, and Paul Klee is claimed to have been blown away by it. The use of squares in her binding of Cendrars’ poetry became a recurring motif in his own work.

Years in Spain and Portugal

In 1914, the Delaunays traveled to Spain and stayed with friends in Madrid. Sonia and Robert were residing in Fuenterrabia, Basque Country, when World War I broke out in 1914, while their son was still in Madrid. They made the decision not to return to France. They moved to Portugal in August 1915, where they shared a residence with Samuel Halpert and Eduardo Viana. They discussed creative partnerships with Viana and José de Almada Negreiros, as well as their friend Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, whom Sonia had met in Paris. Inspired by the beauty of Portugal, Delaunay painted Marché au Minho (Market in Minho, 1916), and subsequently held  held a solo show in Stockholm in the same year.

In 1917, The Delaunays met Serhiy Diaghilev in Madrid. Sonia created the costumes for Diaghilev’s productions of Cleopatra (set design by Robert Delaunay) and Aida in Barcelona. The Delaunay’s time in Madrid proved fruitful for creative ventures: Sonia’s designs came to grace the interior of the Petit Casino nightclub in Madrid and she established the Casa Sonia, where she sold her interior and apparel creations, with a branch in Bilbao. She was the focal figure of the Madrid Salon. Sonia Delaunay visited Paris twice in 1920 in search of new chances in the fashion industry, and in August she addressed a letter to Paul Poiret expressing her desire to extend her business to include some of his creations. Poiret refused, stating she was married to a French deserter and had copied drawings from his Atelier de Martin. In the same year, the Galerie der Sturm in Berlin displayed works by Sonya and Robert from their time in Portugal.

Back to Paris

In 1921, Sonia, Robert, and their son Charles permanently relocated back to Paris, settling at 19 Boulevard Malecherbes. Delaunay’s most pressing financial troubles were alleviated when they sold Henri Rousseau’s Charmeuse des Serpents (The Snake Charmer) to Jacques Doucet. Sonia Delaunay stitched garments for private clients and friends, and in 1923, she was commissioned by a Lyon manufacturer to develop fifty fabric designs using geometric shapes and vibrant colors. She launched her own firm soon after, and simultané became her registered trademark.

In 1923, she designed the set and costumes for Tristan Tszaras’ staging of Le Coeur à Gaz. Together with Jacques Heim, Sonia founded a fashion atelier in 1924 ― with Nancy Cunard, Gloria Swanson, Lucien Bogert, and Gabriel Dorzia being just some of her clients.

With Heim, Delaunay a pavilion named boutique simultané at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Delaunay spoke at the Sorbonne about the impact of painting on fashion.

“If there are geometric forms, it is because these simple and controllable elements have proven suitable for the distribution of colors, the relationships of which are the true object of our search; however, these geometric forms do not characterize our art.” Color dispersion can also be used to make intricate designs like flowers, etc… just handling them would be more delicate.” ― Sonia Delaunay, Sorbonne lecture, 1927.

Sonia created costumes for Marcel L’Herbier’s Le Vertige and René Le Somptier’s Le Petit Parigot, and designed some furniture well as furnishings for the 1929 film Parce que je t’aime (Because I love you). While participating as a member of Robert Perrier’s artistic salon R-26, Sonia also designed haute couture textiles for him.  Sonia’s business wasn’t left untouched by the Great Depression – after dissolving her firm, she returned to painting, but she continued to design for Jacques Heim, Metz Co, Perrier, and private clientele. “The sadness liberated her from the business,” she said. In 1935, the Delaunays relocated to 16 Rue Saint-Simon.

Sonia and Robert collaborated on two pavilions for the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne: the Pavillon des Chemins de Fer and the Palais de l’Air. Sonia insisted on not being included in the commission arrangement, agreed to assist Robert if she so desired. “I am free, and I intend to remain so,” she declared. The exhibition’s frescoes and painted panels were created by 50 artists, including Albert Gleizes, Léopold Survage, Jacques Villon, Roger Bissières, and Jean Crotti. In October 1941, Robert Delaunay died of cancer.

Later years

Sonia served on the board of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles for several years after WWII. In 1964, Sonia and her son Charles donated 114 pieces created by Sonia and Robert to the National Museum of Modern Art. Italian artist Alberto Magnelli told her that “…she and Braque were the only live artists who were presented at the Louvre”. Rythmes-Couleurs (Rhythms of Color) was published in 1966, along with 11 of her gouaches reproduced as pochoirs, and Poems Robes (poem-dresses) was released in 1969, accompanied by texts by Jacques Damas and 27 pochoirs. Sonia was made an officer of the French Legion of Honor in 1975. From 1976, she collaborated with the French company Artcurial to create a line of textiles, dinnerware, and jewelry inspired by her work from the 1920s. Her autobiography titled Nous irons jusqu’au soleil (We will go to the sun) was released in 1978. Sonia Delaunay died aged 94 on December 5, 1979, in Paris. She was laid to rest near the grave of Robert Delaunay at Gambet.

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