Sonia Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay was originally born under the name Sarah Stern on November 14, 1885 in Odessa, Ukraine. She was one of three children in an underprivileged family, so her mother chose to send her to live with her affluent Jewish uncle in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her uncle, Henri Turk, was a well-known lawyer that could afford to give her a better life. Living with him and his wife since the age of five, she became a member of their family so they decided to change her name from Sarah Stern to Sonia Terk. This transformation offered her the chance to climb the social ladder and enter into a path of higher education.

At age sixteen was when her artistic gifts were first noticed by an art teacher at her school in Russia. Her teacher then suggested that she should leave to advance her skills in Germany at Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Arts. She spent a few years in Germany from 1903 to 1905, but then decided to move to Paris, France to study at the Academie de la Palette. During this period, Sonia was inspired by her surroundings and exploring local art galleries. She especially took a liking to Fauvist and Post-Impressionist styles. She then met an art dealer, Wilhelm Uhde, who soon became her friend and close companion. In 1908, her and Uhde struck up a deal to wed in order to keep her family from forcing her to come home and in return hide his homesexuality. They were married on December 5, 1908 and in the following years he opened the door to her artistic career by introducing her to influential people in the community and allowing her to have her first art exhibit showcasing her work.

Through her connections, she fell in love with Robert Delaunay and her and Uhde kindly decided to divorce. Her and Robert married soon after on November 15, 1910 and had a son Charles in January of 1911. Sonia’s artistic career began as a painter where she focused on working with gouache and experimenting with color. But she soon expanded mediums beginning to work in fashion, costume design, and interior design. While she is associated with several artistic movements, her and her husband, Robert, are the dynamic duo credited with the formation of ‘Orphism.’

Spiraling out of Cubism, Orphism sometimes also referred to as Simultaneism, started in 1912. This movement played with color and was given its name from French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire gave the style this name because he thought the works had a lyrical, almost musical aspect to them. The name Orphism originated from Orpheus who was a poet, musician, and prophet in ancient Greek mythology. Orphism was similar to Cubism in that it focused on the dissection of geometric shapes and forms, but unlike Cubism it took more of a Fauvist approach to color. Orphism, believed color was an impactful element that needed to be the heart of each work. Other artists were tackling the same idea that art had a certain rhythm and connection to music like Wassily Kandinsky. The Delaunays were inspired by the work of Kandinsky, along with Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat and a book on color theory by chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul. The couple tested color effects by using contrasting colors on the spectrum to create a vibration effect.

Sonia soon began to explore other mediums through collaborations with artistic colleagues. In 1913, she produced a poems-paintings series with friend and poet, Blaise Cendrars. Then in 1917, she went to Madrid to design costumes for a version of Cleopatra, which was the first of many theater experiences she had. This costume design opportunity gave her the confidence to take a break from painting to focus on a more textile-related career. This led her to open her own design and apparel store in Paris in 1921. Her store featured simultaneous dresses and handbags that mixed pattern and color in playful ways.  Her fabric designs were such a hit, they attracted the attention of big-time department store Metz & Company. Later, she worked with another poet, Tristan Tzara, on a dress collection that connected words with art. Each dress design represented a word or poem from Tzara’s work.

In 1937, Sonia went back to painting when her and Robert were commissioned to paint murals for the Paris International Exposition near the Eiffel Tower. Then in 1941, her husband passed away leaving her to move around during the war trying to escape her Jewish heritage. When it was safe, she returned to Paris in 1944 to continue her painting. In 1950, she made a series of paintings called Rhythm Color. Then in 1964, she came in contact with Jacques Damase who aided her career by setting up a retrospective exhibit of her life’s work in 1967 at the Louvre. In 1978, she published her autobiography exploring her extensive career in art and fashion. At the age of ninety-four, Sonia passed away in Paris on December 5, 1979.

Today, Sonia Delaunay is recognized as an amazing artist both in her home country and around the world. United States President Richard Nixon is even said to have had one of her Rhythm paintings hung up in his office. While many times she was seen as a shadow of her husband, Robert Delaunay, Sonia was a powerful force in many arenas of design. She extended her work to fashion design through apparel and costume work, explored interactive home and interior spaces, and fine tuned her painting and art skills. She was a woman of many talents and was the first female artist to have a retrospective of her art at the Louvre. She was highly successful and received awards such as the French Légion d’Honneur in 1975, Chevalier des Arts et Lettres in 1958, and a gold medal for her two murals at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937. She is known all over the world for her vivid use of color and bold use of abstract design. While she was a painter at heart she extended her love for design into costume design for plays and movies and home decor for pillows and quilts. Her work was not the only impact she left, but instead her life’s greatest accomplishments were the relationships and connections she built with friends and colleagues through the explorative path she took in her career.


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