Delaunay, Sonia

1885 – 1979
French, Russian

Sarah Stern was born in the Ukraine, but was virtually adopted at a young age by her mother’s brother, Henri Terk, who brought her to St. Petersburg where she enjoyed a privileged life as part of an affluent, well-connected, Jewish household. Her exposure to the fine arts was augmented with travel though the capitals of Europe and an excellent education including private lessons in drawing and painting. Her natural talents as an artist were quickly recognized and her desire to pursue this occupation led her to move to Paris in 1905.

Here she wasted no time immersing herself in art classes at the Académie de la Palette and visiting salons and galleries all over Paris. The art scene in Paris was thriving at this time and the revolutionary works of Matisse, Cézanne and Gauguin impressed and influenced the young artist.

A marriage to the German collector and dealer, Wilhelm Uhde, allowed her to remain in Paris, rather than return to her family in Russia, and furthered her education in the business of art. However, it was when she met the young Robert Delaunay, whose mother was a patron of Uhde’s gallery, that Sonia discovered love. Robert and Sonia quickly became passionately involved and were married as soon as Uhde graciously arranged for a divorce.

Robert and Sonia were true soul mates. Together they developed their avant-garde color theories of Orphism (nonrepresentational color abstraction) and Simultanism (color as a major element in the creation of form and movement in drawing). The bright colors of Russian peasant costumes and folk art of Sonia’s childhood were revived in her work of this time and indeed influenced the couple’s foray into abstract art.

Sonia regarded the fine arts and decorative arts with equal importance and devoted herself with equal enthusiasm to creating fabrics and household objects and painting a portrait in oil. This fascination with color and design soon led her to a very successful career in fashion and textile design, beginning with the first “simultaneous dresses” in 1912 and continuing with the masterful collaboration with Blaise Cendrars in “La Prose du Transsiberien” the following year.

Sonia’s relationship with her husband Robert was very much a partnership. Although they worked separately on many projects, she was undeniably a major influence and helpmate in his professional life and they entertained regularly and lavishly. Both were devoted to their art, but Sonia realized very quickly that she was the more practical of the pair and that it would be up to her to support their family. This she did through commissions for ballet and opera costumes and custom clothing for such famous women as Nancy Cunard and Gloria Swanson. She went on to open a shop (“Casa Sonia”) in Spain, the precursor to the renowned “L’atelier Simultané” in Paris, for interior decoration and accessories. These shops would be her main occupation (and source of income) for the years 1918-1935. Her geometric patterns vividly expressed her color theories and were sought after by fabric manufacturers, retailers and couturiers throughout Europe and New York.

Unfortunately by the early 1930s Robert’s career had stagnated and Sonia’s ability to support them was hindered by the effects of the Great Depression. It was a very difficult time for the couple but ultimately led to one of their great collaborations — the murals for the Exposition of 1937 in the new Palais de Chaillot in Paris.

Robert Delaunay died of cancer in 1941 and shortly after Sonia became acutely aware that her own life was in peril due to the persecution of Jews during World War II. She spent the following years exiled in the French countryside while protecting the rolled up canvases of Robert and their friend Hans Arp. Finally, the war was over and she was able to return to Paris and resume her life as a painter, print-maker, and designer of objects from tapestries to alphabets.

Despite her own considerable gifts, it was not until the late 1950s that Sonia Delaunay’s talents as an artist were recognized for their own merits. Although her work will be forever intertwined with her husband’s, she has achieved long-overdue respect for her color theory and compositions. More than any other artist, Sonia Delaunay is credited with bringing together the fine and the decorative arts. Her vision lives on as the inspiration for new generations of both artists and designers.