Sonia Delaunay: Businesswoman and Living Work of Art

Matthew Baines

A modern businesswoman with a clear strategy

Sonia Delaunay: businesswoman and living work of artWhen you are married as a woman to an artist husband in the early 20th century, your destiny is rarely one of longevity from your own art. But become practical, commercial and self-promoting and you might be remembered.

Practical over theoretical

One of the main reasons that I am drawn to Sonia Delaunay is because of her passion for colour and her love of the artisanal. But I am also drawn by her deliberate self-positioning in the early years of her career as a Modern Woman, despite her somewhat secondary role in the career of her husband, Robert Delaunay. Delaunay was careful to manipulate her image some fifty years before Andy Warhol was doing the same. She was of her time, but also before her time. She embodied a new form of woman, but also conformed, or at least appeared to conform, to the traditional role of the demure wife.

Refusing to remain within any one medium, Sonia Delaunay's applied art seems like a practical response to her domestic situation. In time though, her textile designs, blankets, home decor and fashion became just as valid as her fine art, albeit, perhaps, more commercial. To me she is the original Modernist. Whilst not immediately democratic in her commercial approach, she went on to embody the spirit of modern technologies and machine-driven production.

Emerging as the New Woman

Whilst her husband, Robert Delaunay, grabbed a lot of the attention in the early years with his interpretation of Cubism and pursuit of Orphism, I wonder to what extent Sonia Delaunay was pushed away from appearing to compete with him and his own pursuit of artistic perfection on the canvas. Robert died relatively young in 1941, whilst Sonia Delaunay lived on to 1979 in a career spanning 60 years. She defied societal constraints of the time, as well as the paternalism of 1950s American art criticism. When in 2015 Tate Modern in London put on a retrospective of her work, it was a breath of fresh air to see her unique Modernist designs and patterns appearing on practical items rather than just hung on the wall.

In her presentation on Sonia Delaunay and "The New Woman", Dr. Sherry Buckberrough talks about the concept of her as two different types of women. One was "the New Woman", the businesswoman who was thoroughly modern in the context of her time. The other was a more traditional, but exotic woman, who dreamt of the Orient with all its traditions, fairy stories and folk art. This was a persona that appealed to her Parisian audience at the time and Delaunay played it well, successfully mixing the two types of woman together to suit.

The portrayal of women in early 20th century: From Static to Movement

Modernism became the movement that defined a huge chunk of the 20th century. Starting with Cubism, it shunned traditional figurative art in favour of abstraction. Later artists such as Paul Rand or Le Corbusier would take Modernism as a technique to meet a functional requirement, as clearly and succinctly as possible. For Delaunay, simply using juxtaposed colours and geometry allowed her to define a dynamism in her art that contextualised the Modernist age of liberation and freedom, particularly when it came to women. At the same time she was able to create art in its purest abstract form and true to the Modernist ideal.

Dynamic Women and Patterns

Prior to the 20th century, particularly when it came to fashion, women had been extremely constrained, to the point of restricted movement, owing to their apparel. Everything was covered from the neck to the ankles. They were secondary to most situations in the paternalistic world of the time. Modernism challenged this concept completely, breaking away from the old traditions and developing new ways of thinking in all aspects of creativity and production. Women became defeminised, quite scandalous at the time, but also extremely exciting to be liberated and free from the previous restrictions of the female role. Legs appeared, hairstyles were shortened and the concept of movement crept into the picture. The motor car symbolised both the freedom and the movement of the age, something that Sonia would incorporate as a muse in the later stages of her career. This was not just physical movement, something that we see in early 20th century photography, but also in the shapes and geometric patterns of the clothing being worn, which created a dynamic effect and was closely tied to the Modernist theories.

Colour as Movement

From her background studying the fine arts in Germany and France, as well as her childhood in St Petersburg, Sonia Delaunay understood the power of colour. She had studied at the Académie de la Palette about the works of 19th century chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul. It taught her how primary colours when juxtaposed with secondary colours could create the illusion of movement. In the modern world of the early 20th century, this was to be the ideal time to reinterpret these theories around colour, which became known as Simultané (a subset of Orphism) something that would dominate her entire career.

Read about Michel Eugene Chevreul on Wikipedia

Sonia Delaunay's early fashion concepts developed the ideas around Simultané as a means of projecting women as a new force that was advancing in society. Colour when used correctly, as well as shape, provided personality and rhythm, something that had been lacking in the portrayal of women until then. There was indeed a musicality to this art, which formed part of the early Modernist movement and particularly in Simultané. Whilst not yet entirely democratic, it appealed in a chic artisanal intellectual sense to the new monied tastes of the age who looked for dynamism, whilst maintaining a nostalgia for the past and were increasingly looking towards other exotic cultures.

To her Parisian customers, who had a taste for Modernity but also the exotic, Sonia Delaunay was to be positioned perfectly for this. Firstly, she was the embodiment of the Modern Woman, having a successful independent career, something that would have been unheard of ten years previously. Secondly, her earlier childhood in Ukraine and Russia brought with it an exotic culture that Parisian society loved. This mixture of influences infused both her art and her product development.

How Sonia Delaunay used her Eastern background to engage the Other

Sonia Delaunay was born Sarah Stern in Ukraine in 1885 to a relatively poor Jewish family. Steeped in the traditions of folk craft, Sonia would have been exposed to this and it is something that features heavily in her textiles and fashion concepts alongside her avant-garde abstract designs.

Sonia Delaunay was also highly educated in the visual arts, having spent a significant part of her childhood living with her affluent aunt and uncle in St Petersburg, who took her around galleries and museums throughout Europe. 

Here she cultivated the rich social and cultural education that the family provided, influenced even more by Russian folk art, but also by the art that dominated Western culture at that time. It was Sonia's love of Gauguin and Van Gogh that introduced her to the concept, and the power, of colour. We see this in her style , which ranges from cubism through to abstraction, using colour as the driving force for dynamism, which was very much of her time.

Once she had arrived in Paris, Sonia Delaunay was immediately aware of the potential interest her audience could take with her Russian background. She would play with the concept of the exotic to develop her name in the Paris art scene whilst promoting her theories around colour, as we can see in the painting below.

Nu Jaune

In Nu Jaune (Yellow Nude) from 1908 we see Delaunay playing with the tradition of the male gaze with the figure of a forlorn female prostitute, an often overused subject in 19th century painting. In fact this painting seems to suggest Manet's Olympia or Matisse’s Blue Nude, Souvenir of Biskra (1907), artists that Delaunay would have studied and admired. Despite the melancholic tone of this figurative painting, there is also a defiance with the abstract dynamism at play, helped by the jagged contrasting colours of orange, green and teal geometric shapes that cut behind the subject. It is the Simultané technique here though that takes it to another level, with both the yellow and turquoise skin tone and the geometric orange and teal abstract shapes behind the figure. It is a defensive painting, with the model's right arm leaning across her body as a barrier. The and mask-like face of the figure and black outline around all aspects of the painting suggests a Primitivist technique, perhaps a reference to the exotic used by Gauguin, although whether as satire or promoting her own exotic background, I'm not sure. You can read more about this concept in the 2019 thesis, Subverting Orientalism and Primitivism? by Laura Ryan.

The Modern Woman

Whilst in Paris, in 1908, she married in order to secure an income from her family, rather than out of love, but by 1910 she met Robert Delaunay, giving birth to a son Charles in 1911. It was for Charles that she started creating folk-craft inspired items such as a cover for his quilt, sewing together pieces of fabric in a practical way, which would form the geometric shapes for which she became known.

Sonia and Robert were the power couple of their day, living off the rental income of her aunt's properties in St Petersburg after she had died. In Paris they held salons to contemporaries such as Kandinsky, Apollinaire and Chagall. Robert was a pioneer in abstraction and together they developed these concepts, with Sonia always keeping a foothold on her Ukrainian and Russian background.

Le Bal Bullier

Created in 1913, this painting is a wonderful example of the Simultané  technique devised by Sonia and Robert Delaunay. It depicts dancers at Le Bal Bullier dance hall in Paris, which Sonia and Robert frequented. At nearly 11 feet wide the dancers are spread out in abstract geometric format under artificial lights which refract vertically down onto the dancefloor into an exploding prism of contrasting primary and secondary colours. The effect is to create movement and energy in the dancers who are broken up into different colours and who then are positioned against a background which is also broken up into different geometrically shaped colour contrasts. The effect is mesmerizing for the viewer and forces them to focus deeply onto the painting to pick up the key elements and take in their own individual movements based on the colour contrasts that are selected. Perhaps equally important to mention here is the subject of this painting and what it represents in terms of modern urban life in the early 20th century. The constraints and the formalities of the earlier generation are swept aside and once again, women can enjoy themselves without societal constraints, moving around the dancefloor in a modern rhythm. In fact the two central figures of the painting are perhaps dancing the Tango, an Argentinean dance that was popular in the dance halls of urban Paris at that time.

The couple were relatively unaffected by the First World War, moving down to Spain where she set up her first boutique, Casa Sonia. The couple then left for Portugal where Sonia immersed herself in the folk art traditions that were alive there, developing her needlework as well as some canvases whilst Robert developed his visual arts. In the true Modernist sense there was no reason why fine art should be constrained merely to the canvas and so both the medium of visual art and applied art were equally valid in their eyes.

As we approach 1917 and the events of the Russian Revolution, this had a profound effect on the direction of Sonia Delaunay's career. With a surge of Russian émigrés flooding into Paris and other European cities, Russian folk art began a revival. The end to her rental income meant that her creative life needed to become more commercial. With contacts made in Spain with ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Sonia was able to create costume designs for Ballets Russes and from there her career spring-boarded into a string of luxury branded studios, namely her fashion brand Sonia in Paris where her Modernist and exotic eastern style aesthetic was extremely popular.

Sonia Delaunay Simultaneous Dress

In 1913, for the Bal Bullier Sonia Delaunay created brightly coloured outfits for herself and her husband to wear to the notorious dance hall in Montparnasse, Paris. She cut out the pieces herself and sewed them into a patchwork of contrasting colours and shapes. As she danced the tango that evening she became a living work of art. The dress provided a silhouette of the natural body and the different stitched patterns, with the multiple arcs of colour, gave the impression of movement.

The dress was an experiment in Simultané that she developed with her husband. It was not a dress to be worn as daywear but rather as a costume. The idea of dressing up and costume was something that always fascinated Sonia Delaunay, as we saw in her collaboration with Diaghliev for the Ballets Russes. The idea of women in performance art had been born.

The dress was quite similar to the quilt that she had created for her son, Charles in 1911, both of which drew on the shapes and fabrics in her memory from her own early childhood in Ukraine and Russia where she would have been aware of the practices of needlework and folk art.

The Sonia Delaunay Simultaneous Dress is a turning point, both in terms of her career but also in the portrayal of women. It marks the point at which, perhaps, Sonia capitulated to her husband's insistence that she designs dresses, not canvases, but in doing so opened up a new world of fashion in which Sonia could inhabit and make her own. It also marks a point at which women could become aware of their sensuality and celebrate it. The different fabrics of the dress were inviting to others to touch and examine. In her article entitled "She Has a Body on Her Dress": Sonia Delaunay-Terk's First Simultaneous Dress, 1913, Ann Albritton goes so far as to say that the beaver fur that she lined the collar trim and the hem of the dress could suggest the slang for vagina, such was the suggestiveness and subversion in the use of different fabrics and colours of this dress at that time.

Interwar Years

It was back in Paris, and particularly during the 1925 Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes where Delaunay was able to broaden her appeal from Paris to the USA. The US until this time had not embraced the concept of modern decorative design. Delaunay's textile designs were hugely popular with American audiences and were now able to be sold in huge quantities using the modern industrial methods of production. Rather than promoting her eastern influences, when it came to her new American audience, Sonia was wise to promote her Parisian status.

From artisanal to machine

By the 1930s Modernism had become quite mature. New technologies had emerged to enable mass production as well as allowing artists to incorporate new materials into their work. Whilst Sonia Delaunay's career up until now had been mostly artisanal, catering mostly to a rich clientele, she was now able to open up her designs to a more democratic appeal, using new technological processes to create her designs en masse. The geometric shapes and colours that she had experimented with in her earlier career moved into more circular forms, mimicking the role of technological machinery that was dominating the landscape. We still see the Simultané in the circular designs with colours occupying semi-circles, often along a diagonal line.

Delaunay's career exploded. In 1926 she appeared on the cover of Vogue, in a painting showing a geometric patterned dress, standing beside the quintessential modern motor car, impressively painted with her geometric patterns.

Impact of Second World War

One of the aspects of Sonia Delaunay's life that she chose not to share was her Jewish background. This was especially important when Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940 and the couple with their son Charles, fled to Vichy France. By this time Robert was not well, and was suffering from cancer. The constant upheaval was too much for him and he died in 1941.

Delaunay's Revival

After her husband died of cancer in 1941, Sonia Delaunay was devastated, so much so that she did not paint for another ten years. She gradually returned to her art and in 1967, at the age of 82, she painted a Matra 530. The continued use of bold geometric shapes were completely at home in the Modernist movement of the 1960s.

It is unfortunate that by the time of the mid-century, her legacy as an independent artist had been overshadowed by her husband. Her skills as an artist, textile and fashion designer were something she had carved out for herself in the dawn of the Modernist world that began at the start of the century. However in 1964 she was recognised by the Louvre who staged a retrospective of her work, the first ever of a living female artist. In 2015 Tate Modern held an exhibition of her 60 year career, showing her paintings, textiles and clothes.

Sonia Delaunay's career began at the start of the 20th century and defined the age of the liberated Modern Woman. With her Russian and Ukrainian influences she developed the artisanal, and like Alexander Girard kept the folk art traditions alive, whether creating home decor, clothing or theatre costumes based on exotic eastern themes, although for different reasons. A hugely successful businesswoman in her own right, with the ability to control her image as a living work of art, that could be compared to Andy Warhol. She went on to design fabrics and textiles for up-market department stores such as Metz & Co. and Liberty. Throughout her career she continued her exploration of colour and movement as well as her geometric shapes. Her products influence us today, not only as part of the wider Modernist movement, but by the fact that applied arts can be just as respected as fine art. We have Sonia Delaunay to thank for that.

Additional resources

Read more about Delaunay's seminal works by Dr. Charles Cramer and Dr. Kim Grant 

Profile | Sonia Delaunay: Queen of Colour and the Abstract

Sonia Delaunay: the avant-garde queen of loud, wearable art by Kathleen Jamie

Sonia Delaunay - Planes, Prints and Automobiles by

A life of Color

If you are looking for a cute resource that encapsulates the meaning of the Sonia Delaunay body of work, consider this gorgeous children's book, entitled Sonia Delaunay A Life of Color by Cara Manes and Fatinha Ramos.

Sonia Delaunay Patterns Re-Interpreted

Sonia Delaunay inspired tea towel by BillingtonPixIt is fair to say that Sonia Delaunay textile patterns are timeless. The geometric shapes are Modernist to say the least, and can provide that incredible sense of movement to most surface patterned products, whether they be meggings or the simple t-shirt. Or, when it comes to vintage style home decor, our own retro style products will certainly help you out. We have a range of midcentury modern style patterns that follow in the footsteps of the Modernist graphic designers of the 20th century.

graphic design Sonia Delaunay

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