Sonia Delaunay • Ukrainian-born French abstract artist
Sonia Delaunay (November 14, 1885 – December 5, 1979) was a Ukrainian-born French artist, who spent most of her working life in Paris and, with her husband Robert Delaunay and others, cofounded the Orphism* art movement, noted for its use of strong colours and geometric shapes. Her work extends to painting, textile design and stage set design. She 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.
Sarah Ilinitchna Stern was probably born on 14 November 1885 in Hradyzk, then Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, today in Poltavska Oblast in Ukraine. Her father was foreman of a nail factory. At a young age she moved to St. Petersburg, where she was cared for by her mother's brother, Henri Terk. Henri, a successful and affluent Jewish lawyer, and his wife Anna wanted to adopt her but her mother would not allow it. Finally in 1890 she was adopted by the Terks. She assumed the name Sonia Terk and received a privileged upbringing with the Terks. They spent their summers in Finland and traveled widely in Europe introducing Sonia to art museums and galleries. When she was 16 she attended a well-regarded secondary school in St. Petersburg, where her skill at drawing was noted by her teacher. When she was 18, at her teacher's suggestion, she was sent to art school in Germany where she attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. She studied in Germany until 1905 when she decided to move on to Paris.
When she arrived to Paris she enrolled at the Académie de La Palette in Montparnasse. Unhappy with the mode of teaching, which she thought was too critical, she spent less time at the Académie and more time in galleries around Paris. Her own work during this period was strongly influenced by the art she was viewing including the post-impressionist art of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Henri Rousseau and the fauves including Henri Matisse and Derain. During her first year in Paris she met, and in 1908 married, German art gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde. Little is known about their union, but it is assumed to have been a marriage of convenience to escape the demands of her parents, who disliked her artistic career, for her to return to Russia. Sonia gained entrance into the art world via exhibitions at Uhde's gallery and benefitted from his connections, and Uhde masked his homosexuality through his public marriage to Sonia.
Comtesse de Rose, mother of Robert Delaunay, was a regular visitor to Uhde's gallery, sometimes accompanied by her son. Sonia met Robert Delaunay in early 1909. They became lovers in April of that year and it was decided that she and Uhde should divorce. The divorce was finalised in August 1910. Sonia was pregnant and she and Robert married on November 15, 1910. Their son was born on January 18, 1911. They were supported by an allowance sent from Sonia's aunt in St. Petersburg.
Sonia said about Robert:
"In Robert Delaunay I found a poet. A poet who wrote not with words but with colours".
In 1911, Sonia Delaunay 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 colour.
"About 1911 I had the idea of making for my son, who had just been born, a blanket composed of bits of fabric like those I had seen in the houses of Ukrainian peasants. When it was finished, the arrangement of the pieces of material seemed to me to evoke cubist conceptions and we then tried to apply the same process to other objects and paintings." Sonia Delaunay