The Artist Birthday Series

Robert Delaunay

The Daily Artist Birthday from TML Arts

Robert Delaunay (12 April 1885 – 25 October 1941), was a French artist who, with his wife Sonia Delaunay, cofounded the Orphism art movement, noted for its use of strong colours and geometric shapes. His later works were more abstract, reminiscent of Paul Klee. His key influence related to bold use of colour and a clear love of experimentation with both depth and tone.

Robert Delaunay, photographed by Man Ray, c. 1920
Robert Delaunay, photographed by Man Ray, c. 1920

Robert Delaunay was born in Paris, the son of George Delaunay and Countess Berthe Félicie de Rose. While he was a child, Delaunay’s parents divorced, and he was raised by his mother’s sister Marie and her husband Charles Damour, in La Ronchère near Bourges. When he failed his final exam and said he wanted to become a painter, his uncle in 1902 sent him to study Decorative Arts in the Belleville district of Paris. At age 19, he left Ronsin to focus entirely on painting and contributed six works to the Salon des Indépendants in 1904.

In 1905 he traveled to Brittany, where he was influenced by the group of Pont-Aven, a group most influenced by the work of Gaugin. Then in 1906, he contributed works he had painted in Brittany to the 22nd Salon des Indépendants, where he met Henri Rousseau.

"Portrait of Henri Rousseau" by Robert Delaunay, 1914
“Portrait of Henri Rousseau” by Robert Delaunay, 1914

Delaunay formed a close friendship at this time with Jean Metzinger, with whom he shared an exhibition at a gallery run by Berthe Weill early in 1907. The two often painted together in 1906 and 1907 and would develop a new sub-style of Neo-Impressionism that had great significance shortly thereafter within the context of their Cubist works. Piet Mondrian developed a similar mosaic-like Divisionist technique circa 1909. The Futurists later (1909–1916) would incorporate the style, under the influence of Gino Severini‘s Parisian works (from 1907 onward), into their dynamic paintings and sculpture.

"Portrait of Jean Metzger" by Robert Delaunay, 1906
“Portrait of Jean Metzinger” by Robert Delaunay, 1906

In 1908, after serving in the military working as a regimental librarian, he met the painter Sonia Terk. At the time, Terk was married to a German art dealer, but from whom she would soon divorce. In 1910, Delaunay and Terk were married, and the couple settled in a studio apartment in Paris, where their son Charles was born in January 1911.

Artist, designer, and wife of Robert, the inimitable Sonia Delaunay
Artist, designer, and wife of Robert, the inimitable Sonia Delaunay

At the invitation of Wassily Kandinsky, Delaunay joined The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter), a Munich-based group of abstract artists, in 1911, and his art took a turn for the abstract. The Blaue Reiter connections led to Erwin Ritter von Busse’s article “Robert Delaunay’s Methods of Compositions” which appeared in the 1912 Blaue Reiter Almanac.

"La Ville de Paris" a study for "La Tour Eiffel" - by Robert Delaunay, 1911
“La Ville de Paris” a study for “La Tour Eiffel” – by Robert Delaunay, 1911

Delaunay is most closely identified with Orphism. From 1912 to 1914, he painted nonfigurative paintings based on the optical characteristics of brilliant colors that were so dynamic they would function as the form. His theories are mostly concerned with color and light. Apollinaire was strongly influenced by Delaunay’s theories of color and often quoted from them to explain Orphism.

"Homage A Bleriot" by Robert Delaunay, 1914
“Homage A Bleriot” by Robert Delaunay, 1914

Says Delaunay, “[In 1912] Cubism was in full force. I made paintings that seemed like prisms compared to the Cubism my fellow artists were producing. I was the heretic of Cubism. I had great arguments with my comrades who banned color from their palette, depriving it of all elemental mobility. I was accused of returning to Impressionism, of making decorative paintings, etc.… I felt I had almost reached my goal”.

1912 was a turning point for Delaunay. On March 13 his first major exhibition in Paris closed after two weeks at the Galerie Barbazanges. The exhibition showed forty-six works from his early Impressionist works to his Cubist Eiffel Tower painting from 1909–1911. Art Critic Guillaume Apollinaire praised those works of the exhibition and proclaimed Delaunay as “an artist who has a monumental vision of the world.”

"Eiffel Tower With Trees" by Robert Delaunay, 1910
“Eiffel Tower With Trees” by Robert Delaunay, 1910

With Apollinaire, Delaunay traveled to Berlin in January 1913 for an exhibition of his work at Galerie Der Sturm. On their way back to Paris, the two stayed with August Macke in Bonn, where Macke introduced them to Max Ernst. When his painting “La ville de Paris” was rejected by the Armory Show as being “too big” he instructed his friend and fellow artist Samuel Halpert, to remove all his works from the show.

"La Ville De Paris" by Robert Delaunay, 1912 - When this painting was
“La Ville De Paris” by Robert Delaunay, 1912 – When this painting was rejected by the Armory Show as being “too big” (267cm x 406cm – 8′ 9″ by 13′ 3″), Delaunay had all his other work removed from the show.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Sonia and Robert were staying in Fontarabie in Spain. They decided not to return to France and settled in Madrid, until August 1915 when they moved to Portugal. First declared a deserter, Robert was declared unfit for military duty at the French consulate in Vigo on June 13, 1916.

The Russian Revolution brought an end to the financial support Sonia received from her family in Russia, and a different source of income was needed. In 1917 the Delaunays met Sergei Diaghilev in Madrid. Robert designed the stage for his production of Cleopatra, while Sonia handled the costume design.

Sonia Delaunay Costume for title role from Cleopatra, 1918 silk, sequins, mirror and beads, wool yarn, metallic thread braid, lamé center back length: 45 1/8 in. (114.62 cm) headdress: 22.69 × 14.63 × 12.63 cm (8 15/16 × 5 3/4 × 5 in.) Overall mannequin footprint: 67 x 36 x 20 inches. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund © Pracusa 2012003 Digital Image © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY
Sonia Delaunay’s costume design for title role from Cleopatra, 1918 (actress wearing the original costume: Lubov Tchernicheva)

delaunay set design for cleopatra

After the war, in 1921, they returned to Paris. Delaunay continued to work in a mostly abstract style. During the 1937 World Fair in Paris, Delaunay participated in the design of the railway and air travel pavilions. When World War II erupted, the Delaunays moved to the Auvergne, in an effort to avoid the invading German forces.

"Rythme No. 1" by Robert Delaunay, 1938
“Rythme No. 1” by Robert Delaunay, 1938

Suffering from cancer, Delaunay was unable to endure being moved around, and his health quickly deteriorated. He succumbed to his illness on 25 October 1941 in Montpellier at the age of 56. His body was later reburied in Gambais in 1952.

Robert Delaunay posing in front of his "Rythmes San Fin," 1935. (Photo by Florence Henri)
Robert Delaunay posing in front of his “Rythmes San Fin,” 1935. (Photo by Florence Henri)


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