Biography of Robert Delaunay, French Abstract Painter

robert delaunay relief
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Robert Delaunay (April 12, 1885 - October 25, 1941) was a French painter who fused influences from neo-impressionism, cubism, and fauvism into a unique style. He provided a bridge to future developments in complete abstraction by the abstract expressionists and color field painters.

Fast Facts: Robert Delaunay

  • Occupation: Painter
  • Born: April 12, 1885, in Paris, France
  • Parents: George Delaunay and Countess Berthe Félicie de Rose
  • Died: October 25, 1941, in Montpelier, France
  • Spouse: Sonia Terk
  • Child: Charles
  • Movement: Orphic cubism
  • Selected Works: "Red Eiffel Tower" (1912), "La Ville de Paris" (1912), "Simultaneous Windows on the City" (1912), "Rhythm n1" (1938)
  • Notable Quote: "Vision is the true creative rhythm."

Early Life and Art Education

Although born into an upper-class family in Paris, France, Robert Delaunay's early life was difficult. His parents divorced when he was 4 years old, and he rarely saw his father after the split. He grew up mostly with his aunt and uncle on their estate in the French countryside.

Delaunay was a distracted student, preferring to spend time exploring watercolor painting instead of his studies. After failing in school and proclaiming that he wanted to be a painter, Delaunay's uncle sent him to apprentice at a theatre design studio in Belleville, France. He learned to create and paint large stage sets.

robert delaunay
Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In 1903, Robert Delaunay traveled to the province of Brittany, and he met painter Henri Rousseau. When Delaunay returned to Paris, he decided to focus on painting and developed a friendship with artist Jean Metzinger. Together, the pair experimented with a mosaic-style of painting inspired by the neo-impressionist pointillistic work of Georges Seurat.

Often working together, Delaunay and Metzinger painted mosaic-style portraits of each other. Delaunay's depiction of a bright sun encircled by rings of color in "Paysage au Disque" foreshadowed his later work with geometric rings and discs.

Orphism

Delaunay met artist Sonia Terk in 1909. At the time, she was married to art gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde. Escaping what was considered a marriage of convenience, Sonia began a passionate affair with Robert Delaunay. When Sonia became pregnant, Uhde consented to a divorce, and she married Delaunay in November 1910. It was the beginning of a personal and artistic collaboration that lasted for more than 30 years. For most of Robert's career, Sonia's success as a fashion designer provided them with financial support.

Robert and Sonia Delaunay became leaders of a movement called orphic cubism or orphism as the more popular short term. It was a spinoff from cubism and, influenced in part by fauvism, focused on brightly-colored works that evolved into pure abstraction. The new paintings seemed to blend Delaunay's earlier experiments with color in his mosaic style and the geometric deconstruction of Cubism.

Robert Delaunay's Orphic series of paintings of the Eiffel Tower retained elements of representational art. His "Simultaneous Windows" series stretched representational art to its limit. The outline of the Eiffel Tower is present beyond a window broken down into a series of colored panes. The effect is kaleidoscopic in nature, a trademark of orphic paintings.

robert delaunay simultaneous windows on the city
"Simultaneous Windows on the City" (1912). Leemage / Getty Images

It is not known for sure, but many art historians credit poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a friend of the Delaunays, with coining the term "orphism." The inspiration is an ancient Greek sect that worshiped the poet Orpheus from Greek mythology. Delaunay often preferred to refer to his work as "simultaneous" instead of "orphic."

Delaunay's reputation snowballed. Wassily Kandinsky openly admired his pictures, and he received an invitation to show his work in the first Blaue Reiter group exhibition in Germany. In 1913, he sent his epic work "La Ville de Paris" to the landmark American Armory Show. Unfortunately, the organizers of the exhibition refused to hang it because of its monumental size, 13 feet wide, and nearly 9 feet tall.

The Delaunays were central figures in the avant-garde art scene in Paris before World War I. They hosted other artists regularly on Sundays. Among those attending were painters Henri Rousseau and Fernand Leger. Sonia Delaunay often created colorful clothing for the group in bright, sometimes garish, hues that matched their style of painting.

Geometric Abstraction

The Delaunays left Paris when World War I broke out in 1914. At first, branded a deserter, Robert Delaunay was declared unfit for military service in 1916 due to an enlarged heart and a collapsed lung. During and in the first years after the war, new friendships developed with Mexican painter Diego Rivera and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. The Delaunays also connected with Sergei Diaghilev, the wealthy impresario who founded the Ballet Russe dance company. Designing sets and costumes for one of his shows brought the Delaunays a much-needed infusion of funding.

In 1920, the Delaunays rented a large apartment where they could host their social Sundays once again. The events drew younger artists, including Jean Cocteau and Andre Breton. With his new friends, Robert Delaunay briefly ventured into surrealism in his work.

During the turbulent war years and after, Robert Delaunay continued to steadily produce works exploring pure abstraction with brightly-colored geometric shapes and designs. Most often, he worked with circles. By 1930, he largely abandoned any objective references to real life. Instead, he constructed his paintings with disks, rings, and curved bands of color.

robert delaunay portuguese woman
"Portuguese Woman" (1916). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Later Life and Career

Delaunay's reputation as an artist began to fade in the early 1930s. While many of his artist friends registered for unemployment insurance to support themselves, Robert refused out of pride. In 1937, along with Sonia, he decided to participate in a project to create massive murals for an aeronautical pavilion. They worked with 50 unemployed artists.

The official theme for the project was the romance of rail travel. Using knowledge gained through experimentation with sand, stone, and sculpture, Delaunay designed panels that stand out in relief and incorporate repeated geometric shapes. The bright colors utilized help create a sensation of continuous movement matching the spirit of technological progress.

For his final major work, murals for the Salon de Tuileries, Robert Delaunay designed paintings that seem to draw inspiration from airplane propellers. Again, bright colors and repeated geometric designs create the powerful illusion of constant motion. "Rhythm n1" is one of the murals. Propeller shapes create a shadow over the cacophony of color centered on a design of concentric circles.

robert delaunay rhythm n1
"Rhythm n1" (1938). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Both monumental projects earned the Delaunays international fame, and they planned to travel to New York City in celebration. Unfortunately, World War II broke out, and they fled to the South of France to avoid the German invasion. Soon, Robert became sick, and he died from cancer in 1941.

Legacy

Robert Delaunay's work reflected the influence of a wide range of modernist art movements, and he frequently successfully fused their impact to create his own unique approach. He wrote a piece in 1912 titled "Note on the Construction of Reality in Pure Painting" that some critics see as a crucial part of the evolution of thought in abstract art.

Some see Delaunay's focus on the Eiffel Tower for subject matter before World War I as a precursor to futurist painting's ties to modern architecture and technology. Fernand Leger later credited Delaunay with playing a crucial role.

robert delaunay la ville de paris
"La Ville de Paris" (1911). Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Delaunay knew Hans Hoffman and Wassily Kandinsky as close friends, and both of them later played significant roles in the development of abstract expressionism. Finally, the color field painting of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman appears to owe a debt to Delaunay's career-long obsession with brightly-colored shapes and geometrical designs.

Sources

  • Carl, Vicky. Robert Delaunay. Parkstone International, 2019.
  • Duchting, Hajo. Robert and Sonia Delaunay: The Triumph of Color. Taschen, 1994.