CR Muse: Sonia Delaunay, Shapes, and Colors

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Art doesn’t need to be confined to a canvas. The versatility of expression, colors, and shapes can adorn pretty much anything. This is none better exemplified than in the work of artist and designer Sonia Delaunay, whose oeuvre stretched across fashion, decorative arts, and traditional paintings.

Delaunay was born Sarah Stern in Ukraine in 1885. But by the age of five, the young artist moved to St. Petersburg to live with her aunt and uncle, adopting the name Sonia Turk. Her aunt and uncle were notably wealthy and exposed Delaunay to cultures and the arts across Europe—she was even sent abroad to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Germany. Eventually Delaunay arrived in Paris, where she was inspired by artists such as Henri Matisse and Vince Van Gough, who pushed the use of color forward. Paris was also where she met Wilhelm Uhde, an art collector and dealer that championed her work. He even gave her her own exhibit in 1908.

With Delaunay’s family in Russia pressuring her to come home, and Uhde, a gay man, trying to avoid scrutiny, the pair decided to get married in 1910. But their union ended soon after she met the love of her life, the painter Robert Delaunay. She and Uhde divorced (though they remained friends), and she married Delaunay, giving birth to their son shortly after.

The Dulaunays seemed to be well suited as partners both personally and professionally. Together they pioneered Simultanism (a strand of Orphism), an abstract style of art that focused on how colors were arranged together via shapes and patches, thus changing how the viewer perceived them. Among her most famous works were Le Bal Bullier (1913) and Prismes électriques (1914), both brightly colored and intricately patterned, precise in their arrangement.

Some think that Delaunay gave up painting so that she and her husband would not be in competition, although she disputed any rivalry between them. Regardless of why she pivoted to other mediums, she maintained a creative output—in turn setting herself for a career that could support her when she needed it the most.

Up until 1917, Delaunay had supported herself with income from renting properties she owned in Russia. But when they were lost in the Bolshevik revolution, she had to fall back on her skills in sewing and design. Of course, it helped that her signature painting style lent itself well to fabric and apparel. Initially, she created the costumes for the Ballets Russes, but quickly her work as a designer expanded into making clothing and textiles. By 1918 she opened her own boutique in Spain titled Casa Sonia, and by the 1920s she opened Atelier Simultané for her line, Maison Delaunay, in Paris, where she collaborated with the likes of Lanvin and Chanel. Hollywood icon Gloria Swanson was among her clientele.

Delaunay eventually returned to painting after Robert died in 1941. Though she was dedicated to preserving his memory and legacy, she also found time to continue working on her own art. Partners even in his death, she arranged joint exhibits of their work in the 1960s. But Duleunay also received her dues as an individual, becoming the first woman to have an exhibit at the Louvre in 1964, and becoming an officer of the French Legion of Honor in 1975. Though she died in 1979, her work continues to captivate audiences—in 2011 the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum held an exhibit of her work, and in 2015 the Tate did as well.

What Delaunay’s legacy proves is that creativity should not be limited by what the establishment considers “worthy” of artistic merit. Fashion (and other forms of crafts and applied arts) deserve every ounce the same respect that fine art is given, and Delaunay’s interests in color and Simultanism only benefited from being expressed through multiple outlets.

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