Robert Delaunay, Autoportrait (detail), 1905–06

Robert Delaunay

France 1885 - 1941

Expressionism, Abstract Art, Orphism

Robert Delaunay
Robert Delaunay
January 24, 2017
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One of the great innovators in twentieth-century painting, Robert Delaunay was a French artist who successfully anticipated many of the current trends in art. He abandoned figuration in 1911 when he joined Wassily Kandinsky‘s Munich-based Blaue Reiter group, joining forces with such artists as Franz Marc, Albert Bloch, and Paul Klee. The lyricism of Delaunay’s color increased from 1912 to 1914, keeping pace with the accelerated perceptual and technical developments of the time. As a leading light of the pre-1920s Paris avant-garde, Delaunay created a new artistic language to express these ideas. A slightly bolder statement would be that he was not only one of the earliest artists to tackle abstraction, but the only artist to present his abstraction as a response to new scientific theories of vision. The colorful, optically driven canvases that Delaunay produced, Hughes shows, set him apart from the more ethereal abstraction of contemporaries like Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and František Kupka.[1]

Robert Delaunay article page on paul gallery is superb
Robert Delaunay – Man with a Tulip (also known as Portrait of Jean Metzinger), 1906 (Left) / Woman with umbrella, 1913 (Center) / Portrait of Madame Heim, 1927 (Right)

Early Life

Born to eccentric upper-class parents, George Delaunay and Berthe Félicie de Rose, Robert had a privileged yet strained early life. His parent divorced when he was only four years old and he barely saw his father afterward. His mother, an irresponsible character fond of society life, called herself ‘Countess’ though the authenticity of her claims to French aristocracy is in question. Taken in by his mother’s sister Marie and her husband Charles Damour, young Robert was raised in a grand estate in La Ronchère near Bourges, by coincidence mirroring the childhood experience of his future wife, Sonia, also brought up by a wealthy uncle and aunt in St Petersburg. At school, he was a lackluster student, who would spend classes painting with watercolors behind his desk lid. Upon failing his final exam and after expressing his desire to become a painter, his uncle sent him to Ronsin’s atelier to study Decorative Arts in the Belleville district of Paris. Here he learned to create large scale theater sets, which would inform his later stage and mural work. After two years, in 1904, he left Ronsin to focus entirely on painting and contributed six works to the Salon des Indépendants. In 1903, Delaunay traveled to Britain, where he became acquainted with Henri Rousseau and turned to painting, inspired initially by the work of the Pont-Aven Group who had painted there from 1886-88. After returning to Paris, he met Jean Metzinger, and two artists became close friends, producing a series of small mosaic-like compositions inspired by the Divisionist techniques of Georges Seurat. In 1909, Delaunay came across a passionate young artist named Sonia Terk, whom he both married and collaborated with, forming one of the most remarkable partnerships in art history.

The biography of Robert Delaunay is actually a story of abstract art

Robert Delaunay artist page contains a short article
Robert Delaunay – Simultaneous Windows (2nd Motif, 1st Part), 1912 (Left) / Window, 1912 (Right)

Robert and Sonia Delaunay

Sonia was a wealthy Russian émigré who had recently come to Paris from Germany in order to train at the Academy de la Palais. When she met Robert, she was already married to the homosexual German art critic and gallery owner, Wilhelm Uhde in a marriage of convenience. Two artists quickly began a passionate affair, and when she became pregnant, Uhde willingly consented to a divorce. They married a year later, and Sonia soon realized that Robert was not going to be what was considered as conventional father or husband – for the majority of their mutual life, she was the main breadwinner for the Delaunay family. The couple rented an apartment on the Rue des Grandes Augustins, the same street where Pablo Picasso lived, and embraced the exciting new world around them. On Sundays, they would open their home to other artists, poets, and musicians that included Henri Rousseau, Metzinger, Guillaume Apollinaire, Fernand Léger, Albert Gleizes, Henri Le Fauconnier, and Blaise Cendrars. On Thursdays the group would dance at the Bal Bullier in Montparnasse, turning up late to make an entrance wearing the outlandish simultaneous designs created by Sonia. At the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Sonia’s income was cut off and she turned to fashion design in order to provide for her family. In 1920, after WWI, the Delaunays left Portugal (where they had spent the war) and returned to Paris. Sonia had established herself as a successful fashion designer, so Robert could freely pursue his own art. Once again, they rented a grand apartment, this time pulling in a new group that included Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, André Breton, Jean Cocteau, and Sophie and Jean Arp. The apartment became a living, breathing simultaneous artwork as their Dada and Surrealist friends adorned the walls with paintings, poems, and signatures.

His personal life was always socially interesting, as he married Sonia and befriended many other creative individuals

Robert Delaunay
Robert Delaunay – Circular Forms, 1930


Spearheaded by Robert Delaunay, Orphism was a trend in abstract art that derived from Cubism, giving priority to light and color. The term originates from 1912 when French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire identified the new style of Cubist painting. Inspired by the work of František Kupka and the Delaunays (who, although channeling the Cubist vision, prioritized color in their work), Apollinaire felt this use of color brought movement, light and musical qualities to the artwork and therefore referenced the legendary poet and singer of ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus, when naming the movement. The correlation between color and music was an idea that interested many artists at the time. Symbolist artists and writers saw analogies between musical tones and visual hues. The painter Wassily Kandinsky had begun to associate music with the abstract aspects of his art, and he discussed the connections in his book Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1912; Concerning the Spiritual in Art). Orphist painters were interested in the geometric fragmentation of Cubism, but — unlike the Cubists, who removed almost all color from their paintings, and rather like the Fauvists — they considered color to be a powerful aesthetic element. One of the resources that inspired Robert Delaunay and Orphist experiments with integrating color and Cubism was De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs (1839; The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Applications to the Arts) by the chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul.[2] He identified the phenomenon of ‘simultaneous contrast’, in which colors look different depending on the colors around them. For example, a gray will look lighter on a dark background than it does on a light one. The Delaunays dispensed with form and aimed to created rhythm, motion and depth through overlapping patches of vibrant hues – creating a strand of Orphism known as Simultanism.

If one word summarizes the art of Robert Delaunay, it is color

Robert Delaunay
Robert Delaunay – Eiffel Tower, 1909-1914 (Left) / The Red Tower, 1911 (Right)

The Eiffel Tower and Other Notable Series and Works

As one of the first non-representational painters, Delaunay greatly influenced abstract art, advancing the style of Cubism. By adding bright and bold shades of color to his work, he was one of the best known representatives of Orphism. Delaunay painted a large number of works centered on the image of the Eiffel Tower as the symbol of modern Paris. The rising form of the tower can just be made out amidst the planes of color. He took his inspiration from a photographic postcard showing a view of the tower looking over the rooftops of the city. The buildings are framed by the suggestion of an open window. Delaunay’s pure bright colors evoke intense light and suggest the dynamic interaction experienced in the city. The City of Paris (1910-1912) figured prominently in the art world of pre-World War I Paris and was one of the first acquisitions of Jean Cassou, a freelance journalist and later the director of the Museum of Modern Art during the turbulent days of the Socialist Blum government prior to World War II.

As is characteristic of his early work, Delaunay mixes codes and symbols of the city he lived in. Here, though, he moves beyond the literal to the allegorical – presenting Paris through a montage of three nude women. The first presents Paris as the historical city, with a view of the Quai du Louvre in the background. The second depicts the classical Paris that is represented by a reference to the Judgment of Paris. The third and final panel is recognizable from Delaunay’s previous Eiffel Tower series as the modern metropolis. Another wider series of works is entitled Rythmes sans fin, each of which used the contrasts between black and white and color to create a formal energy across the painting’s composition. Arguably, the best-known painting from this series is the Endless Rhythm (1934), where Delaunay moved towards total abstraction, away from his existing ideas that color could be used to achieve a ‘visual reorganization of the contemporary world’. This painting saw a revival of his profound interest in fully abstract geometric forms, as seen in The First Disk (1912).

Robert Delaunay
Robert Delaunay – The City of Paris, 1912


At one moment, Delaunay was almost erased from history. Ironically, history was of great importance to him, he knew his place in it, and was particularly fond of pointing out who, or what, was first. And indeed, he was the very first in several areas, a true pioneer or abstract art. After reading his writings on color, it’s plain that Delaunay is responsible for much original thinking about painting’s formal qualities. Robert and Sonia had one of the most astonishing artistic and personal partnerships in history, inspired each other and made each other better. Even though contemporary discourse may prefer to view Sonia sans Robert, wife sans husband, and she is certainly just as good, if not better, than he. But they broke boundaries together, as a married couple, as a family, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of something more nebulous. It only seems fair that their story should be told simultaneously, as both his and her story is one of a man and woman working in harmony as artists. Arguably, it is Sonia that is Robert’s greatest legacy, as she kept their shared theories of simultaneity alive through her prolific production of clothing, household objects, book binding, fabrics, and painting, all characterized by colorful abstract forms that were reminiscent of her husband’s earlier Orphic works.

Robert Delaunay lived and worked in Paris.


  1. Hughes G., Resisting Abstraction: Robert Delaunay and Vision in the Face of Modernism, University Of Chicago Press, 2014
  2. Anonymous., Orphism, Britannica [December 26, 2016]

Featured image: Robert Delaunay – Autoportrait, 1905-06 – image via
All other images via

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016Hinter dem Vorhang – Verhullung und Enthullung seit der RenaissanceMuseum Kunstpalast, DusseldorfGroup
2016Rupture or Continuity?Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, BrusselsGroup
2016The Power of the avant-gardePalais des Beaux-Arts (BOZAR), BrusselsGroup
2016Henkel – The Art CollectionK20, DusseldorfGroup
2016MOMAT CollectionNational Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (MOMAT), TokyoGroup
2016AccrochageGalerie Thessa Herold, ParisGroup
2016The Power Of The Avant-GardePalais des Beaux-Arts (BOZAR), BrusselsGroup
2015The Delaunay CircleCentro de Arte Moderna - CAM - Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, LisbonGroup
2015Los modernosMuseo Nacional de Arte, Mexico CityGroup
2015Poesie Der FarbeStaatsgalerie Stuttgart, StuttgartGroup
2015The Moderns: Selections From The Saltzman Family CollectionNassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor, NYGroup
2015Future PresentSchaulager, Munchenstein - BaselGroup
2015From AboveBlain Di Donna, New York City, NYGroup
2015Les Clefs d'une passionFondation Louis Vuitton, ParisGroup
2015Shatter Rupture BreakThe Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, ILGroup
2014Robert Delaunay - Rythmes Sans FinCentre Pompidou - Musee National d Art Moderne, ParisSolo
2014Van Gogh To Kandinsky - Impressionism To Expressionism, 1900-1914The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts - Musee des beaux-arts de Montreal, Montreal, QCGroup
2014Changing the field of view. Modern printing and the avant-gardeMuzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Main Building, LodzGroup
2014Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to KandinskyLos Angeles County Museum of Art - LACMA, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2014Modern TimesThe Nationalgalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin as Guest of Kunsthalle Wurth, Schwabisch Hall - Kunsthalle Wurth, Schwabisch HallGroup
2014Europe 1900–1975: Selections from the Museum’s CollectionMFAH - Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston, TXGroup
2014Seine Augen Trinken Alles Max Ernst Und Die Zeit Um Den Ersten WeltkriegMax Ernst Museum, BruhlGroup
2014Horizont Jawlensky - Alexej von Jawlensky im Spiegel seiner kunstlerischen Begegnungen 1900–1914Museum Wiesbaden, WiesbadenGroup
20139915 Miradas ÍntimasFundacion Mercedes Calles y Carlos Ballestero, CáceresGroup
2013Modernites Plurielles 1905-1970Centre Pompidou - Musee National d Art Moderne, ParisGroup
2013İstanbul Eindhoven Saltvanabbe Modern TimesSALT Galata, IstanbulGroup
2013Matisse und die FauvesAlbertina, ViennaGroup
2013Vues d en hautCentre Pompidou-Metz, MetzGroup
2013Fenêtres, de la Renaissance à nos jours. Durer, Monet, Magritte...Fondation de l'Hermitage, LausanneGroup
2012Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925MoMA - Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NYGroup
2012Visions of ModernityDeutsche Guggenheim, BerlinGroup
2012L'Art en Guerre, France 1938-1947 - De Picasso a DubuffetMusee d Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris - MAM, ARC, ParisGroup
2012Encounters with the 1930sMuseo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, MadridGroup
2012A WINDOW ON THE WORLD, from Durer to Mondrian and beyondMuseo Cantonale d Arte Lugano, LuganoGroup
2012Una finestra sul mondo - Da Durer a Mondrian e oltreMuseo d'Arte di Lugano, LuganoGroup
2012Modernism - the renewal of painting 1908-41ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, AarhusGroup
2012Fresh Widow - Fenster-Bilder seit Matisse und DuchampK20 Grabbeplatz, DusseldorfGroup
2012Der Sturm Zentrum der AvantgardeVon der Heydt Museum, WuppertalGroup
2012Copycat: Reproducing Works of ArtSterling and Francine Clark Art Institute - The Clark, Williamstown, MAGroup
2012The Avant-garde. From Picasso To PollockPeggy Guggenheim Collection, VeniceGroup
2011Les Sujets de l’Abstraction (1946 – 1962); 101 masterpieces from the Gandur Foundation for Art, GenevaMusee Fabre, MontpellierGroup
2011Die Kunst der Entschleunigung - Bewegung und Ruhe in der modernen KunstKunstmuseum Wolfsburg, WolfsburgGroup
2011100 Jahre Lehmbrucks Kniende - Paris 1911Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg Group
2011FamilienbandeGalerie Thomas Modern, MunichGroup
2011Malerei der Klassischen Moderne aus der Sammlung Viktor und Marianne LangenLangen Foundation, NeussGroup
2011DYNAMIK! Kubismus - Futurismus - KINETISMUSBelvedere, ViennaGroup
2011The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, NYGroup
2011Arp, Beckmann, Munch, Kirchner, Warhol …Klassiker in Bonn - Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, BonnGroup
2010Parallel RemixLeonard Hutton Galleries, New York City, NYGroup
2010Paths to abstractionArt Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, NSWGroup
2010The Moderns - Revolutions in Art and Science 1890-1935Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig - MUMOK , ViennaGroup
2010Der Blaue Reiter. Aquarelle, Zeichnungen und Druckgraphik aus dem Lenbachhaus. Ein Tanz in FarbenStadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus & Kunstbau, MunichGroup
2010Art of Modern JapanNational Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (MOMAT), TokyoGroup
2010Gipfeltreffen der Moderne. Das Kunstmuseum WinterthurMuseum der Moderne Salzburg Rupertinum, SalzburgGroup
2010Peggy e Solomon R. Guggenheim: le avanguardie dell’astrazioneARCA - ex Chiesa di San Marco, VercelliGroup
2010Paris and the Avant-Garde: Modern Masters from the Guggenheim CollectionSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, NYGroup
2008Robert DelaunayKunstmuseum Basel, BaselSolo
2008Robert DelaunayGaleria Barbie, BarcelonaSolo
2006Sonia & Robert DelaunayGaleria Barbie, BarcelonaSolo
2003Robert et Sonia Delaunay - Donation Sonia et Charles DelaunayCentre Pompidou - Musee National d Art Moderne, ParisSolo
1998Visions of Paris - Robert DelaunaySolomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, NYSolo
1997Robert DelaunayDeutsche Guggenheim, BerlinSolo
1997Robert DelaunayMusee de L'Annonciade , St. TropezSolo
1983Robert DelaunayGalerie Gmurzynska, CologneSolo
1981Robert Delaunay - Blick auf die Stadt, 1910-1914Stadtische Kunsthalle Mannheim, MannheimSolo
1976Robert DelaunayStaatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Baden-BadenSolo
1962Robert DelaunayFrankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, MainSolo
1962Robert DelaunayWallraf-Richartz-Museum, CologneSolo
1962Robert DelauneyKunstverein in Hamburg, HamburgSolo
1957Robert DelaunayStedelijk Van Abbemuseum, EindhovenSolo
1957Robert DelaunayStedelijk Museum Amsterdam, AmsterdamSolo
1956Robert DelaunayStadtische Kunsthalle Mannheim, MannheimSolo
1956Robert DelaunayKunstverein Freiburg, FreiburgSolo
1956Robert DelaunayMuseum Morsbroich, LeverkusenSolo
1952Exhibition of Paintings by Robert DelaunayArts Club of Chicago, Chicago, ILSolo
1951Robert DelaunayKunsthalle Bern, BernSolo