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The first woman to have her personal exhibition in the Louvre. The fashion queen, who made the dresses and cars of Parisians her canvases. Together with her husband she created the movement reflecting “the motion of colour in the light”. Sonia Delaunay got through a good, fruitful, vibrant and happy time. How a Girl from Odesa Became a French Artist A small Jewish girl born on 14 November 1885 wasn’t Sonia Delaunay, but Sarah Stern. Everybody agrees with this fact, but other things are rather dubious. Half of sources inform of the town of Hradyzk in Poltava oblast to be Sarah’s birthplace, others say it was Odesa. The art expert Yevhen Demenok conducted a real detective investigation. He studied all her available biographies, gathered all the possible information, made the filing clerks of Poltava and Odesa do their best, and at last, he found evidences that indeed, Sarah Stern was born in Odesa (the letter from the book of births of the Odesan Rabbinate dated 1855 made things clear, because it contained the direct information about a female child Sarah born to Elias Stern and his wife Hannah).
We don’t know much about her childhood, and that’s the reason why we have such confusion. The girl lost her parents early, though her childhood can hardly be called unhappy. When she was five, her maternal uncle, the lawyer Henri Terk took her to St. Petersburg. That was also when she changed her last name. The girl who studied in gymnasia wasn’t Sarah Stern anymore, but Sonia Terk. The uncle pampered his niece, and on holidays, he set her off on a journey across Europe. Exactly during her trips to France, Italy, Germany Sonia understood she liked drawing more than anything else. Her art teacher affirmed she was talented in drawing, and that it had sense to develop her skills. When Sonia was 18 years old, her uncle sent her to the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. Two years after, she moved to Paris (by some accounts, the book about Édouard Manet she read compelled her to do so) and entered the Académie de La Palette. Her teachers were Edmond Aman-Jean, Amédée Ozenfant, Dunoyer de Segonzac. Though, in her opinion, regular visits to the Paris museums made her more good.
In Sonia’s early paintings, the influence of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Henri Rousseau can be seen. She borrowed the freshness of colour from «wild» fauves Matisse and Derain (1, 2).
In 1908, Sonia Terk married a German art expert and gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde. It was the marriage of convenience. Close relationship with the gallery owner were useful for the beginning artist, besides her foster-parents insisted on Sonia’s return to St. Petersburg and “managing her love”, which by no means attracted her. What about Uhde, the marriage helped him to dispel the rumours about his homosexuality. Their marriage didn’t last long, so two years later Sonia and Uhde got divorced, and she married the beginning abstract painter Robert Delaunay, being already pregnant by him. And that’s how the name that we know today, Sonia Delaunay, appeared. By the way, it was Uhde, who introduced her to Robert, maintained good relationship with Delaunay couple for life and organized their exhibitions with great pleasure. Simultanism – Circles, Colour, Light, Simultaneity The second marriage turned to be a lifelong alliance. Some researchers consider, that Robert made Sonia the one she was, but such statement is absolutely wrong. By the time she met Robert, Sonia had already painted Philomene, Sleeping Girl, Yellow Nude.
Before she met Robert, she already had a good sense of colour, stroke audacity, as well as repercussion of Matisse, Gauguin and early Picasso.
That’s why, it’s better not to take an argument too far, trying to find out, who of the couple had greater influence on his spouse. Sonia commented, “He gave me shape, I gave him colour”, it is absolutely fair and enough to believe.
First, a son Charles (who became one of the most influential researches and popularisers of jazz) was born to the young family, and a little bit later, in 1912-1913, simultanism became their second “child”. This term comes from the Latin word simul, which means together, simultaneously. Art dictionaries inform that this is “a combination of asynchronical and multi-structural moments in one picture”. According to Sonia and Robert, simultanism is the reflection of the colour motion in the light.
Simultanism represents a specific offshoot of Cubism. Sonia and her husband drew concentric colourful circles full of light, which created the feeling of dynamic. Colour correlations seemed to pulse and sound in their pictures. For the first time simultanism pictures were introduced to public eye in Salon des Indépendants in 1913. Guillaume Apollinaire defined this style as “Orphism”, drawing an analogy between the works by the artistic couple and the charming music of Ancient Greek Orpheus.
By the way, Sonia Delaunay not only drew perfect circles, but also she knew how to create circles of intimates. She was deftly joining different parties, creating successful artistic unions, getting acquainted with right people. It wasn’t done in snoopy manner, as she had a brilliant talent, it’s no wonder that she was successful. Or, after all, it is not? Sonia seemed to be successful in everything she tried to do. Sonia Delaunay’s Painting and Fashion The name of Sonia Delaunay is firmly connected with fashion. Everything started with a patchwork quilt for small Charles, in 1911. It is still kept in the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris. And in 1913, Madame Delaunay sparked furore, when she came to an artistic party wearing a dress made by her own hands in the simultanism style. It was she to bring what is called poetry dress into vogue: the dress topped with a whole poem, and what is more the words interspersed with simultanism figures.
During the First World War, they went to Spain, where Sonia drew sketches of costumes and decorations to the ballet “Cleopatra” for Diaghilev non-repertory theatre. With the help of Diaghilev Sonia founded her first fashion house Casa Sonia in Madrid, and after her return to France in 1921, she opened another one, called Delaunay, in Paris. Sonia created designs of clothes and fabric colouring, models of playing cards, she invented new car designs, theatrical costumes, book illustrations and even wove carpets. And Here Comes the Glory Even before the war, Sonia Delaunay with the poet Blaise Cendrars created a 2 metres long accordion-pleated book. Cendrars’ poem “Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France” and Sonia Delaunay’s illustrations impressed fastidious Parisians. A little bit later, the book was shown at the exhibition in Berlin, where Paul Klee saw it. Since that moment, squares, similar to Sonia’s ones, became an integral part of his own works (1, 2, 3, 4).
Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in 1925 was an important event in Sonia’s life. She presented a wide selection of her works - ranging from “simultanism” scarfs, which became a runaway hit, to carpets and cars. She was acclaimed to be the leading exponent of the art-deco, where modern and avant-garde were combined. After the exhibition, the Parisian fashion magazine L'Artvivant admitted “the balance of dimension and colour, and the great sense of rhythm” in the works of Madame Delaunay. And the world-known magazine Vogue put her “optical” dress on its cover. Long after, in 1966, in its January issue appeared the interview with the artist, where she said in retrospect, “I think that the time of modern painting began from us: we made it more liberal”.
Though she had been popular before, the real glory came to her after the exhibition. Theatres and film studios were giving eye-teeth for her costumes, the Sorbonne asked her to start giving lectures on the history of arts.
The Great Depression in 1929 had a material adverse effect on the European countries, therefore in 1931, the fashion house was closed. When researchers come to this moment of her biography, they often admit, that Sonia got an opportunity to “recall painting”, though this statement is not quite fair. She had never forgotten about painting, but in her creative activity, painting stopped concerning only canvases. Women wore Sonia Delaunay’s pictures. She said, “For me, my fabrics were nothing more, than just colour exercises”.
Faithful companion, husband and associate Robert died of cancer in 1941. To overcome the pain of losing him she continued her work with triplicate energy. She was writing a lot about Robert, publishing memoirs, showing pictures of her husband and her own ones at all, more or less important, European exhibitions of the non-figurative art.
In 1963, the painter donated 117 pictures by Sonia and Robert to France. And a year later, the historical event happened – the first personal exhibition of a living female artist took place in the Louvre. In 1975, when she was 90, Sonia got the highest reward in France – the Legion of Honour. She died at age of 94, and she went down in history as one of the first painters who combined art and clothes.
See all known pictures and biographies of their authors on Arthive pages.