She was a Ukrainian-born French artist who spent most of her working life in Paris and with her husband Robert Delaunay and others, co-founded the Orphism art movement.
What is Orphism art and how did it get its name?
The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire regarded the colourful Cubist inspired art of the Delaunays as initiating a new style that brought musical qualities to painting. In 1912, he named this style Orphism in reference to Orpheus, the legendary poet and singer of ancient Greek mythology.
The correlation between colour and music was an idea that interested many artists at the time. Painter Kandinsky had begun to associate music with the abstract aspects of his art as did Fernand Leger, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamps.
Noted for its use of strong colours and geometric shapes, Sonia Delaunay’s work extends to painting, textile design and stage set design. She was the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in 1964.
In 1975 she was named an officer of the French Legion of Honour.
Sonia studied in Germany until 1905 when she decided to go to Paris and enroll at the Academie de la Palette in Montparnasse. Unhappy with the mode of teaching, which she thought was too critical, she spent less time at the Academie and more time in galleries around Paris. Her own work at that time was influenced by the post-impressionists.
That year she met German gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde. They married in 1908. Not much is known about their marriage and it was assumed that it was a union of convenience to escape the demands of her parents who disliked her artistic career and wanted her to return to Russia, and Uhde masked his homosexuality through his public marriage to Sonia.
Comtesse de Rose, mother of Robert Delaunay, was a regular visitor to Uhde’s gallery, sometimes accompanied by her son.
Sonia met Robert Delaunay in early 1909. They became lovers and it was decided that she and Uhde should divorce.
She said about Robert: ‘In Robert Delaunay I found a poet. A poet who wrote not with words but with colours.’
They were married November, 1910. Their son Charles was born January, 1911. Yet, when she married Robert, she put down her brushes almost entirely. She realised that his creativity was more fragile than her own and she needed to step back if he were to thrive.
When Robert died in 1941, she painted rarely and instead directed her considerable talent with colour towards applied arts such as textile design and embroidery.
The version of events that we have come to accept focuses on macho, male artists led by Picasso and Gauguin who forced art in audacious new directions and female artist such as Sonia barely got a look-in!
Well, now the Tate Museum is trying to set the record straight, with 400 works tracing Sonia Delaunay’s authority among the avant-garde, her achievement as a colourist, her work in the field of applied arts and her pioneering abstract paintings.
Like many creative women of her generation, Sonia embraced Modernism as a means of escaping the frills and flounces of women’s traditional place.
She died on December 5, 1979, in Paris at the age of 94 years old.
Her autobiography Nous irons jusqu’au soleil (We Shall Go Up To The Sun) was published in 1978.