The Object of Orphism

Sonia Delaunay was a Jewish-French artist who, along with her husband Robert Delaunay and others, co-founded the Orphism art movement, noted for its use of strong colors and geometric shapes. Her work extends to painting, textile and stage set design.

Sonia was born Sarah Ilinitchna Stern on 14 November, 1885, at Gradizhsk in Poltava Oblast in the Ukraine (which at the time was part of the Soviet empire). She came under the care of her uncle Henri Terk, a successful and affluent Jewish lawyer, and his wife in St. Petersburg, By 1890 she was formally adopted by the Terk’s and assumed the name Sonia Terk. Under their influence she traveled and developed an early appreciation for art, museums and galleries. By the age of 18, Sonia attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. After studying in Germany, Sonia moved to Paris in 1905.

As a student at the Académie de La Palette in Montparnasse, Sonia spent time at many of the local galleries. The post-impressionist art of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Henri Rousseau and the fauves, Matisse and Derain became heavy influencers for Sonia’s art.

During a short ‘marriage of convenience’ between German gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde and herself, Sonia met the Comtesse de Rose who was a regular visitor to Uhde’s gallery. It was through this relationship that Sonia met the Comtesse’s son Robert Delaunay and soon they became lovers. After a ‘quickie divorce’ Sonia and Robert married on November 15, 1910.  Their son Charles was born on January 18, 1911.

In 1911, she made a patchwork quilt for Charles’s crib, which is now in the collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris. This quilt was created spontaneously and uses geometry and color. Its significance reflects the Cubist influences of the era and the onset of the ‘Orphism‘ movement.

  • In 1917 the Delaunay’s met Sergei Diaghilev in Madrid.

Sonia designed costumes for his production of Cleopatra (stage design by Robert Delaunay) and for the performance of Aida in Barcelona.In Madrid she decorated the nightclub Petit Casino and founded Casa Sonia; selling her designs for interior decoration and fashion with a further branch in Bilbao.

After her husband Robert died of cancer in October 1941, she declared: “In Robert I found a poet. A poet who wrote not with words but with colors“.

  • Sonia was the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in 1964; and in 1975 was named an officer of the French Legion of Honor.
  • After WW2, she became a board member of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles for several years.
  • In 1964, along with her son Charles they donated 114 works by Robert and herself to the Musée National d’Art Moderne.
  • Her autobiography, Nous irons jusqu’au soleil (We shall go up to the sun) was published in 1978.
  • Sonia died on December 5, 1979, in Paris, aged 94. She is buried in Gambais, next to her husband Robert.

The images featured above include: “La Cible” and “Electric Prisms” (1914) oil on canvas.

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