Five Things You May Not Know About Avant-Garde Queen, Sonia Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay – Contrastes lithograph. Sonia Delaunay – Contrastes lithograph. Sold for €1,800 via Capitolium Art (June 2023).
Sonia Delaunay wearing Casa Sonia creations, Madrid, c.1920

Sonia Delaunay wearing Casa Sonia creations, Madrid, c.1920 (Wikimedia Commons)

From fashion to interior design, graphics, collage, book illustration, and decorative arts Sonia Delaunay’s life and career was as vibrant and colourful as her loud, wearable art that established her as a Parisian avant-garde queen who created a vivid new visual stimulation that made color an exciting language of expression.

Whatever the medium, Sonia Delaunay’s art gifted the viewer a powerful visual experience. As a painter or designer, Delaunay’s rhythm, motion, and depth of overlapping patches of vibrant color made her an innovative avant-garde queen, whose use of strong colors and geometric shapes led her to establish the Orphism art movement (an offshoot of Cubism that focused on pure abstraction and bright colors) with her husband, Robert Delaunay.

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Sonia Delaunay - Color Plate Lithograph from 1970 Electric Prisms.

Sonia Delaunay – Color Plate Lithograph from 1970 Electric Prisms. Sold for $225 via Art Legacy (July 2021).

Spending most of her working life in Paris, Sonia Delaunay helped to shape the image of the New Woman of the 1920s through her fashion designs, and along with her husband (who was considered the more famous in their lifetime), Sonia’s use of color that was inspired by Fauvist painters like Henri Matisse would propel her to worldwide fame in the 1960s.

Sonia Delaunay - Etude pour le Bal Bullier.

Sonia Delaunay – Etude pour le Bal Bullier. Sold for £14,400 via Christie’s (June 2006).

Her vivid and visual artwork captivated people and played an important role in the development of Abstract art. Partners in life as in art, Robert and Sonia developed new forms and theories, including Orphism and Simultaneism, which was a form of Orphism that alluded to new concepts of space and time described by early-20th century physicists, which was typified by her Electric Prisms series, and Bal Bullier paintings.


While in Paris, the Delaunays entertained and held salons for friends, including Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall, and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who came up with the name Orphism. Sonia led a remarkable life that spanned two world wars, two artistic movements, many artistic mediums, and one decisive childhood moment that set her on a path to artistic immortality, among a few other things that you might not know.

Her Life Changed When She Was Seven Years Old

Sonia Delaunay - Rythme coloré (618).

Sonia Delaunay – Rythme coloré (618). Sold for £94,850 via Christie’s (June 2004)

When Sonia met Robert, he gave her financial security thanks to his minor aristocrat status. This was a long way from her working-class upbringing in Gradizhsk, Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire). Born Sara Stern in 1885, she wrote in a memoir of “memories of the peasant weddings of my country, where the red and green dresses, ornamented with many ribbons, flew about in dancing.” Forming an early association with color, Sara became Sonia when her working-class parents sent her to live with wealthy relatives in St. Petersburg at the age of seven, allowing her to pursue her love of color.

Sonia enjoyed a privileged upbringing of private schools, international travel, and art lessons. She studied drawing and painting in St. Petersburg and in 1905 moved to Paris where she studied at the Académie de la Palette and the Académie Moderne, before meeting her future husband, Robert. They married in 1910.

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Delaunay’s Creation of Orphism had a Lasting Influence

Known for its pure abstraction and bright colors, Orphism was relatively short lived, but its legacy can still be seen today. It influenced many artists and laid the foundations for the development of abstraction, while it particularly resonated with those involved with Analytical Cubism. Francis Picabia, Albert Gleizes, and Marcel Duchamp all experimented with the style, while its effect was also felt in Op art, where Orphism’s contrasting colors and depth can be seen in the art of Bridget Riley, Richard Anuskiewicz, and Wen-Ying Tsai.

Orphism’s influence also stretches beyond art and has come to embody innovation in modern design vocabulary. Sonia’s approach to design can still be felt today in Junya Watanabe’s 2015 ‘patchwork madness’ fashion collection, which paid homage to her vivid, contrasting designs.

Sonia’s Artistic Skill was Diverse

MatraM530 by Sonia Delaunay at the Mondial de l automobile de Paris

MatraM530 by Sonia Delaunay at the Mondial de l automobile de Paris (Wikimedia Commons).

It wasn’t just fine art that occupied Delaunay’s artistic vision, as she applied her Orphic approach to a variety of mainstream crafts, including textiles, fashion, and interior design. Delaunay also collaborated with the Metz & Co. department store, Amsterdam, for whom she produced clothing and textiles in her typically abstract aesthetic.

It was in 1924 that she first showed the depth of her palette with a bright and geometric pattern for one of those new-fangled motor cars; the Citroën B12. This was repeated in 1967 when Delaunay designed another automotive pattern, this time for a Matra 530 sports car. Painted in large race-flag checks of blue, green, and red, her design gave her art renewed motion. This motion was evident when the car was moving as the pattern morphed into a light blue shade ‘so as not to attract other drivers’ attention to the point of causing accidents through distraction.’

Delaunay’s Designs Influenced Paris Fashion in the 1920s

It was the outbreak of World War I in 1914 that inadvertently led Sonia towards more mainstream fashion design. She had moved to Spain with Robert to escape the conflict and there she met the artist Sergei Diaghilev and applied her Simultaneism approach to designing costumes for the theatrical performance of Cleopatra. The Delaunay’s were experiencing financial difficulty, so Sonia’s entrepreneurial ability was timely and she would later open her fashion and design shop, Casa Sonia.

This shift towards everyday fashion meant that her art was not only accessible, but wearable too. Her geometric designs, dominated by vivid colors, diamonds, triangles, and stripes proved popular, particularly as her designs conformed to the female body, as opposed to the cumbersome designs of the day. Then in 1925, she opened her boutique-studio, Atelier Simultané, in Paris. In the same year her painting, Simultaneous dresses: Three women, showed how her art and fashion design inspired one another. As the 1920s came to a close though, so too did Delaunay’s dalliance with commerce, as the stock market crash of 1929 forced her to close her boutique.

Global Success Came Late for Sonia

At the age of 79, Sonia Delaunay’s artistic impact was given the reverence it deserved when she became the first living woman artist to be exhibited at The Louvre, Paris, in 1964. Three years later Sonia was given another retrospective, this time at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, before her status in France was confirmed in 1975 when she was awarded the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest distinction.

The honors reflected a renewed interest in Sonia Delaunay’s art and during the 1940s and ‘50s she became involved in the second wave of abstraction and influenced a younger generation of abstract artists, including Mark Rothko. Sonia Delaunay died in Paris, 1979 at the age of 94. She left behind a joyfully colorful legacy that has earned her a significant place in art history.

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Sources: MoMA | The Guardian | The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) | The Collector | Tate | Wikipedia | The Art Story | Swann Galleries