“All I Ever Wanted To Be Was A Painter!”

Prof. Roy DeVille
Prof. Roy DeVille

This semester, my Art Structure (Design) class has been working on several art projects. One of these involves fabric art in the form of a floor covering. Fabric art combines the fine arts with applied art in a total unity. In teaching fabric art, we explore the masters of the technique from early times to the designers of the 20th century. No one did fabric art better than Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979).


Sonia Stern Terk was born in Ukraine into an impoverished family. At the age of 5, she was sent to St. Petersburg to be raised by her affluent uncle, Henri Terk. At age 18, she was sent to Karlsruhe to attend art school. There, she was a classmate of composer/painter Arnold Schönberg, whose work, by the way, she said she didn’t understand. In 1905, Sonia moved to Paris where she was strongly influenced by the post-Impressionists and Fauvist painters. In 1908, she married Wilhelm Uhle, a German gallery owner who provided her with the artistic exposure she needed to become known. A frequent customer at the gallery was the Comtesse de Rose, mother of painter, Robert Delaunay. Sonia met Delaunay in 1909 and the rest is history. Divorced from her German patron, she married Delaunay in 1910. Their son, Charles, a renowned jazz musician, was born in 1911. Sonia said, “In Robert Delaunay, I found a poet. A poet who wrote not with words but with colours.”


Sonia Delaunay’s first large-scale painting was Bal Bullier (1912), named for a popular dance hall frequented by the Delaunays and their friends. Having settled in, their Thursday evening salons attracted the poets, painters, and musicians of the day. There appeared to be no competition between husband and wife. Ideas were exchanged, playing off of each other’s concepts about form and color. But Sonia knew even then that she would always live to some degree in the shadow of the great Robert Delaunay. Hers was a spontaneous, non-intellectual approach to art. She has frequently made the statement, “all I ever wanted to be was a painter,” but it would be in fabric art and design that she would make her own way. Not until later in her life would Sonia Delaunay be known for her paintings.


There is a certain commercial aspect to fabric art. Floor coverings were purchased with a specific room in mind. In the same way, fashion design is not successful unless the garment or accessory is purchased and used. But there is a unity in the creative genius that molds fabric design to the fine arts. When this happens, the fabric design is truly a work of art.


A simple baby quilt, created for son Charles, was the catalyst for Orphism, the Delaunay’s version of Cubism. Sonia recalled, “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 Russian 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.”  The quilt had a profound effect on Robert Delaunay’s painting style and led him into a phase of creating collages.


The Delaunay’s were in Spain when World War I broke out and remained there until 1921. While in Spain, Sonia began her work in fabric and fashion design. She opened a design studio, Casa Sonia, where she experimented with the concept of simultané, simultaneous designs. Based on chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul’s theory of simultaneous contrast and the 72-part color circle, simultané creates a sensation of movement by juxtaposing starkly contrasting colors. When one design is placed next to another, or one color joins another of equally brilliant hue, it affects both, making each stronger  In 1918, Sergei Diaghilev, also in Spain with his Ballets Russes, commissioned Sonia to design the costumes for his ballet, Clèopatre.


Upon their return to Paris in 1921, Sonia embarked on a full-scale career in fashion design. Maison Delaunay became the fashion house for such notables as Nancy Cunard and Gloria Swanson. Sonia’s geometric designs in bold colors could be found on everything from dresses to handbags, scarves, hats, and even an automobile! In 1927, she gave an address at the Sorbonne on the influence of painting on clothing design. In her speech, she introduced the Parisian fashion world to prét-á-porter (ready-to-wear)! The Great Depression closed the business in 1935 and Sonia returned to painting.


Following Robert Delaunay’s untimely death in 1941, Sonia spent much of her time promoting his work.  But she also came into her own as an artist following years of being primarily known as the wife of the famous Robert Delaunay. Sonia began calling herself Delaunay Terk. But she was quick to deny that she was a feminist in any sort of way. She saw herself as an artist first and a woman second. After beginning to exhibit again in 1953, she was the first female artist to exhibit a retrospective at the Louvre. In an interview in the spring of 1978, Sonia Delaunay spoke of her life and work. She stressed that her approach to art was not intellectual but totally spontaneous. And spontaneous it is! The work, with its geometric patterns and bold colors, has a movement of its own. When asked about fashion today, her one-word retort was “horrible!” Probably a good thing for her that she did not live to see some of the 21st century fashions!


Our Art Structure class will be exhibiting in the University Gallery in early April. Details will be forthcoming. For more information on this upcoming exhibit, please contact me at (318) 473-6449.