Sonia Delaunay (Sarah Eliyivna Stern, 1885-1978) is an artist and designer from Odesa, the first female artist in history to hold a personal exhibition at the Louvre during her lifetime.
Alongside her husband she created a new style in art with special rules for the use of colour – ophism – and which received its name from Guillaume Apollinaire, a French poet and a friend of the family.
Sonia combined a bohemian lifestyle with significant business talent and interest in modern technologies: she worked on experimental colour cinema in 1926, co-operated with Citroen in decorating their cars with ornaments and with an electric company to create illuminated posters for the city. Along with that, Sonya enjoyed developing costume designs for provocative performances of Dadaists and Diaghilev’s ballets, and in 1925 her “optical” dress made it to the cover of Vogue. Sonia’s simultaneous outfits sold like hot cakes in the most prestigious European boutiques. In the year of her death, David Bowie performed in a costume based on Sonia Delaunay’s sketches which she created for Tristan Tzara’s play in 1920.
73 Rue Notre Dame des Champs, Paris, France
In 1908 this gallery hosted an exhibition of Sonia Terk, a young artist and a recent graduate of La Palette Art Academy. The same year, she married Wilhelm Uhde, a critic, collector and gallery curator, so that she did not have to go back to her adoptive parents in Saint Petersburg.
Little information is available about her family and childhood. Sarah Stern was born in Odesa into a poor Jewish family. The girl became an orphan early on, and from the age of five was brought up in the family of her uncle, Petersburg lawyer Heinrich Terk. This is how she became Sonia Terk. It is also certain that Sonia’s biggest passion was art: she first studied in an Academy in Karlsruhe, and then in La Palette (while complaining about the conservatism of her teachers in both places).
Sonia entered into a nominal marriage with Wilhelm Uhde who, research his revealed, had a male lover and who was more friend and mentor to Sonia than husband. However, thanks to Uhde, Sonia met the leading artists of the time: Pablo Picasso, Andre Derain, and Georges Braque, finding herself in the heart of Paris artistic life with the chance to exhibit her works.
Finally, it was thanks to Uhde Gallery that Sonia met her future husband Robert Delauney a year after that first exhibition.
3 Rue des Grands Augustins, Paris, France
In 1910, immediately after the wedding, the Delauney couple settled in a cosy home in Rue des Grands-Augustins.
The story of Sonia and Robert looks like love at first sight: “I fell in love with him at once – he was full of new ideas and passion for life”, Sonia said many years later. Meeting Robert in 1909 is something that Sonia should thank her first husband Wilhelm Uhde for. Robert’s mother was a philanthropist of the Uhde Gallery and sometimes attended exhibition with her son, an artist. Uhde did not oppose his wife’s affair and accepted a divorce. Sonia’s family, however, was unhappy with both the divorce and the fact that Sonia’s new husband was a descendant of French crusaders. Naturally, Sonia did as she chose.
The home in Rue des Grands-Augustins became not just a family nest for the Delaunay couple but more of a salon where artists, writers and musicians gathered every Thursday, among them Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Hans and Sophie Arp. Normally the party continued in Montparnasse, in Bal Bullier where the guests danced the tango and the foxtrot.
Another favourite spot for the couple was Boulevard St. Michel; even then the street was lit with electricity, not gas, so the colours were special. Actually, colour was the main interest of Sonia’s and Robert’s creative practice. It is from such walks that her painting Electric Prisms was born.
Under the influence of cubists Sonia experimented with abstraction and geometry. Robert was interested in the theory of colour and conducted experiments in that field. Together they invented their style in art, simultaneism (“picturing the movement of colour in light” according to Robert’s definition), which, Apollinaire gave the more poetic name of orphism in 1913.
Calle de Columela, 2, Madrid, Spain
In 1918, Casa Sonia opened in Madrid at her own workshop and store. It so happened that a short trip the couple took to Spain coincided with the beginning of World War I. It became dangerous to return to Paris, and the revolution of 1917 in the Russian Empire left Sonia without permanent income when the property and home of her family was nationalized and she could not expect any further material support.
Sonia’s passion for design and extravagant clothing came in handy. While they were still in Paris, Guillaume Apollinaire, who had visited the Delaunays in Rue des Grands-Augustins, noted that “they do not burden themselves with imitations of old clothing and while trying to belong to their own times they do not change the design according to contemporary fashion but look for inspiration in the use of new materials and numerous colours.” Sonia started designing interior objects, extraordinary accessories from regular materials like felt and decorative items found in flea markets. Finally, in 1918 Casa Sonia appeared, a prototype for Sonia’s boutiques yet to come in European cities. The objects that Sonia created and sold were niche and exclusive. The perk of her clothing was not in its cut, which was rather typical, but in its brave combination of colours and shapes.
Apart from objects and dresses for her Madrid clientele, Sonia designed costumes for Sergey Diaghilev’s ballet Cleopatra while the renowned founder of “Ballets Russes” was in Madrid.
19 Boulevard Malesherbes, Paris, France
In 1921, following the tumultuous years of the war, Sonia and Robert Delaunay settled again in Paris. This time the ground floor of their house served as a workshop and a clothing and textile store – “Delaunay” – and the experience of “Casa Sonia” in Madrid came in handy. Besides, Sonia worked on textile designs for the world-famous Lyon factory and continued making costumes for the theatre. However, this time these were not modern ballets but Dadaist performances; in particular, costumes for the Tristan Tzara play The Evening of Prickly Heart co-authored with Ilia Zdanevich, and Serge Romoff’s The Gas Heart. The plays were performed publicly in 1923 at the Théâtre Michel at 38, rue des Mathurins. Sonia Delaunay also created poem dresses which combined Tzara’s poetry and her simultaneous compositions, wearing these to Paris bohemian parties.
In 1979, (the year of Sonia’s death), David Bowie performed on Saturday Night Live in a costume based on her sketches for Tristan Tzara’s productions.
Sonia did not have to wait long for her talent as a designer to be recognized. The boutique was profitable, and in 1925 a Sonia Delaunay dress made it onto the cover of Vogue. At that time, Vogue covers featured illustrations instead of photos so Delaunay’s dress was drawn by Georges Lepape, a famous fashion illustrator.
3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, Paris, France
From 28 April through 25 October 1925 in Paris, an international exhibition of decorative art was taking place. This was a showcase event involving 21 countries and giving a name to a whole field in art – art deco (abbreviated from the French, Arts Décoratifs). Sonia was in the whirlwind of events as together with Jacques Heim she presented her “Boutique simultané” pavilion with her simultaneous dresses, accessories and interior design objects. If not for World War I, this event would have taken place in 1914. Yet for Sonia this exhibition brought a decisive meeting with Joseph de Leeuw, owner of the famous Metz & Co department store and her most important client in the future.
Sonia also kept informed about technical novelties and apart from equipping her own pavilion decorated a new car model for Citroën which was showcased at the exhibition.
This event made her extremely popular. In 1925-1929 her models of colourful vests, swimming suits, crocheted dresses, scarfs, and handbags with abstract images became symbols of avant-garde fashion.
Keizersgracht 455, 1017 DK Amsterdam, Netherlands
Since 1925, the oldest Amsterdam department store Metz & Co. had offered dresses employing Sonia Delaunay’s designs. Metz & Co. had been founded in 1740, and since 1908 had been located in the same building until it closed its doors in 2013. In the early 20th century the department store stood out with its cooperation with avant-garde artists and designers. Following the International Exhibition in Paris where Sonia Delaunay met the department store owner, Metz & Co. gradually became Sonia’s most important client, and Gloria Swanson along with the wives of architects Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Erich Mendelsson became brand aficionados.
Her cooperation with the department store lasted into the 1960s and over that period Metz & Co. had acquired about 200 designs from the artist. However, it is known that Sonia had proposed more than ten times that number of designs. Store archives held about 2,000 sketches by the artist. Numerous textile samples preserved in the attic became the basis for “Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay” (New York, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2011) dedicated to the artist’s cooperation with Metz & Co.
After Sonia’s atelier in Paris closed as a result of the global economic crisis, she analysed clients’ demands and understood they were more interested in textile ornaments than in models per se, and fully concentrated on textile design. Her clients included Liberty London department store, Rodier and Lyon textile factories. The artist wrote, “… by developing in art we brought it to everyday life… it became more accessible and understood via my textiles. And for me, my textiles were nothing else than exercises in colour.”
In 1930, an album was published in Paris under the title “Textiles and Carpets of Sonia Delaunay, 1928; Compositions. Colours. Ideas”.
Sorbonne Université, Rue de l'École de Médecine, Paris, France
On 27 January 1927, Sorbonne hosted Sonia Delaunay’s lecture “The Influence of Painting on Fashion”, which was accompanied by a screening of an experimental colour film that Robert and Sonia Delaunay made together with the cinematographer Chevreau.
In her creative practice Sonia did not limit herself to classic paintings on canvas, and her experiments with fashion brought her both profits and popularity. However, Sonia's design was always based on orphism, the style she formulated with her husband in 1913. Color was the artist’s main interest and it could be present not just in paintings but also household objects, clothing, theatre costumes, cars and finally light, like in films or later posters with electric backlighting. Therefore, no more qualified lecturer about the mutual influence of fashion and art could have been selected.
Of the film that was first screened at the lecture only two minutes are preserved. In these we can see several mannequins against a background of colourful textiles. This was the first film shot in a studio under artificial lighting using the Keller-Dorian technique. The film ends with Sonia Delaunay’s shot in brilliant colours. Jean Mitry who participated in filming recalled that “turning the optical system around its axis, little by little, we gradually changed colours and I still remember that we could add flush to the model’s face thanks to this simple process.”
76 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris, France
In 1939 in the Charpentier gallery, Sonia and Robert Delaunay joined the organization of New Realities exhibition which later became a regular event, and which still gathers abstractionist artists to the present day. This salon became the last joint project of the couple, as in 1941, Robert passed away.
The idea of New Realities salon was soon to appear during Thursday gatherings at the Delaunay home where artists and family friends spent time discussing art. It is believed that just like with orphism, it was Guillaume Apollinaire who came up with the name for the salon. Yet, this term can also be found in the records of Delaunay himself and among Otto Freudlich’s texts from 1929.
At that time Sonia had already earned a gold medal for a monumental wall painting she made with her husband for the French pavilion of International Exhibition in Paris, as well as a prize from the Paris electric company for the innovative illuminated poster.
In 1946, the Salon was officially registered, and since 2004 Réalités Nouvelles has taken place in Parc Floral de Paris у Vincennes, assembling the work of about 350 artists annually.
93 Chemin de l'Orme, 06130 Grasse, France
Since 1941, following the death of Robert, Sonia had lived in Grasse with old friends of the family, Hans and Sophie Arp and Alberto Magnelli. During World War II, Grasse remained a spot of relative calm for Sonia. The house the Arp couple rented was surrounded by olive trees and the sea was visible from the windows. After the Nazis confiscated the house, the group settled into a more modest dwelling, also located in Grasse. The sketches by Sophie Tauber-Arp portraying the views from this home have been preserved, and Sonia Delaunay dedicated most of her time to keeping Robert’s memory. She began organizing his archive to preserve his legacy – an effort that took her ten years.
After Grasse, in 1944, Sonia lived for some time at the place of her first husband Wilheld Uhde in Toulouse, together with her old friends Tristan Tzara and Jean Cassou, returning to Paris only in 1945, following the war.
Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France
On 27 February 1964 the Louvre opened a personal exhibition of the Delaunays. After that of Georges Braque, it was the second exhibition of contemporary artists in the museum’s history, and the first lifetime exhibition of a female artist in the Louvre. Sonia donated 177 works showcased in the Louvre to the Paris Museum of Contemporary Art. She was 79 years old at the time and had a range of awards yet coming her way: the Grand Prix of Cannes International Salon, the City of Paris gold medal, and the Order of the Legion of Honour.