Colorful Painter Who Traveled in Good Company : Thoughts on Robert Delaunay
April 12 is the birthday of Sonia Delaunay’s partner, who in his youth helped Henri Rousseau and in his later years received support from the Guggenheims
Painter Robert Delaunay (1885–1941) wanted people to do more than see movement in his canvases. He wanted them to feel motion with their eyes, to experience it. And he wanted to share his great enthusiasm for a world undergoing rapid technological change.
Take a look at this 1914 Delaunay painting, Hommage à Blériot, a tribute to the first person to cross the English Channel in a plane.
The London Daily Mail had a £1,000 prize for the first airplane flight across the Channel, a competition French aviator Louis Blériot won in 1909.
In doing this, Blériot bested rival pilots including Charles de Lambert. Lambert had received his training from Wilbur Wright of that famous American duo, the Wright brothers. (There’s a link at the end of this article for a bibliography of sources I used in researching Delaunay, including this Smithsonian article.)
Although Delaunay would never himself take to the sky, he was “delirious” about Blériot’s feat, wrote journalist and author Axel Madsen in his 1989 biography of Robert’s wife, “Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation.”
“Robert was in love with the new age — industry and science, automobiles and airplanes,” Madsen wrote. “And he loved Paris as the modernist capital.”
Below I’ve circled in lime green Delaunay’s depiction of Blériot’s plane and in darker green, the propeller. And in blue, I circled an image with no immediate connection to Blériot’s flight.
The Eiffel Tower stands in Paris, about 185 miles (293 km) from Calais, the French departure point for Blériot’s plane.
Delaunay was simply mad for the Eiffel Tower. Mad for it.
Built as the entrance for the 1889 World Fair, the tower gained a place in the imagination as a symbol of Paris, a symbol of progress, a symbol of modernity. Delaunay would paint it over and over, with about 30 of his works featuring the Eiffel Tower.
Below is a photo of the Eiffel Tower and one of Delaunay’s earliest paintings of it. The approach in this painting is fanciful, but still fairly close to reality.
Delaunay was among the artists who experimented with a new way of painting, called cubism. Pioneered around 1907 by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the cubist style involved bringing to the canvas different viewpoints at the same time.
Cubism was part of a long revolution in painting from the late 19th century into the 20th century. Artists moved away from centuries of efforts by European traditions, in which painters tended toward realistic depictions of people and places. Below is a cubist painting by Georges Braque of a harbor.
You can see below how Delaunay changed his depiction of the Eiffel Tower through his exposure to cubism.
Below are my favorites among Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower paintings. In both of these, Delaunay chooses to frame the tower with trees and leaves.
Delaunay’s decision to add sensual trees and leaves to these paintings brings to mind an artist whom he admired and greatly aided. Lush foliage was a hallmark of the works of Henri Rousseau (1844–1910).
The (Fake?) Countess, the Tax Collector and the Snake Charmer
Delaunay and other artists of his Parisian circle like Picasso spent their working lives primarily or entirely devoted to their art. Henri Rousseau did not have this luxury.
Rousseau could only dedicate himself to art full time as he neared 50. He first worked many years as bureaucrat and tax collector, and so was teasingly known as Le Douanier (or the customs officer). A legal scrape in his younger years had led to a stint in the army, where Rousseau met soldiers who had survived an ill-fated French expedition to Mexico (1862–1865). Their stories fed the imagination of Rousseau, who would become famous for paintings of scenes set in jungles. For these works, Rousseau studied plants and animals in the zoos and gardens of Paris. He never left France. But he was willing to have others believe he was drawing on his time in Mexico when painting exotic scenes.
Rousseau initially drew ridicule for his bizarre perspectives and awkward compositions. But his bold and bright and imaginative works slowed gained a following among artists. Around 1907, Robert Delaunay helped arrange the first major commission for Rousseau, who already had been exhibiting his work for many years.
Delaunay’s mother, the Countess Berthe de la Rose, or at least that is how she was known. There seems to be some question about the authenticity of the title. Writer Axel Madsen describes Berthe de la Rose as an independent character. Delaunay’s father served in the painter’s life as little more than a name on a birth certificate. The countess handed off care of Robert to her elder sister and brother-in-law in order to travel to places such as Russia and Africa.
In Madsen’s telling of the history of the painting, Rousseau’s inspiration came from de la Rose’s tales of her time in India.
“ Rousseau had been more than happy to be given a commission and listened, fascinated, to Berthe de la Rose’s travel stories. ‘India,’ she told him, ‘sometimes feels like a venomous paradise.’ Immediately the painter imagined a twilight scene of a lake with banks covered with plants in opposing greens, and a brown Eve standing naked in the foliage. ‘But you have snake charmers in India,’ Berthe interrupted, ‘men who played flutes and made rattlesnakes dance.’ Rousseau would paint a snake around Eve’s neck, a snake she would charm by playing a panpipe.”
The result was the painting shown below. Rousseau’s “Snake Charmer” has for decades been in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, which has one of the world’s most admired collections of modern paintings.
Writer Madsen describes the Countess de la Rose as being an ardent promoter of her son’s art. She was a vivacious woman who held lively parties and made her own hats.
“She could add chic and charm to the simplest boaters, and she wasn’t above selling her creations to famous milliners,” Madsen wrote.
This description of the countess also rings true for the other woman who would champion Delaunay’s work — his wife, Sonia Terk Delaunay.
A talented painter and designer in her own right, Sonia and Robert worked as a team through their 30-year marriage. Sonia would continue to advocate for her husband’s work for decades after his death.
“She decided to dedicate herself to securing Robert’s place in history, to somehow gaining for his work the recognition his exuberant and difficult personality prevented while he was alive,” Madsen wrote.
Like Robert, Sonia Terk (1885–1979) was raised by her mother’s sibling. In her case, it was a well-off uncle and his wife. They brought Sonia, born Sarah Stern, from Ukraine at age five to live with them in a wealthy section of St. Petersburg. The creative young girl won the financial support of her uncle and aunt to study art away from home, eventually finding her way to Paris. There Sonia ran in the same artistic circles as did Robert.
Before becoming a couple, both were invited to a 1908 party that Pablo Picasso held for Rousseau. By then, Rousseau was a “familiar figure in the cafes and artists’ haunts” wrote Jessica B. Harris wrote in a 2017 New York Times article, “The Dinners That Shaped History.” Rousseau’s naive style remained an object of fun for many in the Parisian art community, although the influential critic Guillaume Apollinaire would come to support Rousseau’s naive style. This too had caught Picasso’s eye.
Picasso “liked it in a twisted way: It was so bad that it was good. As a joke, he and Apollinaire planned an over-the-top dinner to celebrate the douanier, or customs officer, a nickname for Rousseau, who had spent much of his life as a public servant,” Harris wrote.
While courting, Robert told Sonia why he skipped Picasso’s party, according to Madsen.
“ `They were doing it to make fun of the old guy,’ he maintained. ‘I admire the man. I’m going to write a book about him’,” Madsen quotes Robert telling Sonia.
But Robert’s book on Rousseau would never materialize.
Sonia would find that would happen a lot with the wilder ideas of her mercurial husband. When Sonia and Robert first wed, she had a handsome income flowing to her through her St. Petersburg’s family. The Russian Revolution put a stop to that. That left Sonia and Robert in need of money, art historian Sherry Buckberrough, said in a 2011 talk at the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s museum of design.
“It was necessary that somebody make a living and she looked at her husband and quickly realized that he wasn’t going to be able to do it,” Buckberrough said. “It just wasn’t quite his character so she began to make objects for sale.”
Sonia was the entrepreneurial one, designing and selling clothes and finding illustrating assignments. Robert indulged in theory.
But together they embarked on a deep decades-long exploration of color. They found early inspiration in Spain and Portugal where the couple lived from 1914 to 1920. Robert later faced criticism for not having served France in what was then known as the Great War, World War I.
Delaunay was fascinated by what happens to the viewer when “very pure” and “very bright” colors are placed in juxtaposition, particularly in the reaction to the places where these colors meet, Buckberrough said in her Cooper Hewitt talk.
“Your eye actually is so impacted by these colors that your eye starts to vibrate and that was really what Robert Delaunay was looking to do, was to get your eye to vibrate as way of setting you as the viewer in motion,” Buckberrough said.
The work of the Delaunays to this day is discussed in art circles with two special -isms: simultanism and Orphism.
Simultanism pays tribute to the emerging discoveries in physics at the dawn of the 20th century. Simultanist paintings are intended to convey a sense of multiple views and points of time being considered at once.
In this circular painting above, Delaunay tests how subtle changes of shades can bloom into new colors, said Ann Temkin of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in a 2013 video.
“You’re actually not seeing something still because there are light waves, there are sound waves, there are particles. Artists at this time were very conscious of the many many new aspects of scientific thought that were upending the idea of the world, of space, and of time as a constant stable given,” Temkin said,
There also was fierce competition among artists to claim primacy in establishing trends, Temkin said. Delaunay painted “Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon” in 1913, but backdated it to 1912.
“There was such a kind of rat-a-tat-tat barrage of new ideas that artists had a great stake in being the first one to do what they did,” Temkin said. “It’s an era of invention. It’s an era of discovery. It’s not an era of doing what other people do. It’s an era of doing what you are doing before anybody else.”
Even so, groups tended to agglomerate around ideas. That led to splintering in the -isms defining trends in the art of the early 20th century.
In this essay, we’ve already touched on cubism and simultanism and mentioned Orphism. So what is Orphism? It’s a term developed by the poet and art critic Apollinaire, referring to the ancient Greek poet and musician Orpheus. The idea of Orphism is to tie colorful abstract paintings such as the Delaunays made to music. Orphism a small branch of what’s called modern art, which roughly covers works made from 1870s to 1970s.
A man consumed by ideas and art, Robert also intermingled with leaders of other famous -isms of the 20th century.
In the Robert Delaunay painting shown below, the figure with the monocle and bowler hat is Tristan Tzara, according to Paris’ Centre Pompidou, which owns the work. Tzara helped found the Dada movement in which poets and painters sought to reject logic and modern capitalism in the wake of the horrors of the Great War. (Among the most famous works of Dadaism is a repurposed urinal that Marcel Duchamp gave the interesting title of Fountain. No joke.)
In 1922, Delaunay also was taking a new look at the Eiffel Tower.
Money was tight for the Delaunays that year. André Breton, a leader of yet another -ism, Surrealism, stepped in to aid the couple, according to Madsen’s biography of Sonia. (Surrealism favored odd juxtapositions of objects, with an attempt to provoke the unconscious mind into the conscious. Think of Salvador Dali’s famous painting of melting watches.)
Breton arranged a sale of Rousseau’s Snake Charmer painting, which Robert had inherited from mother, to collector Jacques Doucet. In the years ahead, Sonia’s businesses would falter and prosper, giving the Delaunays mixed periods of prosperity and leaner times.
Interest in Robert’s work revived after he received a major commission for the French government for the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life). He was assigned to illustrate themes he loved — aspects of modern transportation.
But Picasso wound up dominating the 1937 exposition, as he did much of Parisian artistic life in the early 20th century.
In this case, though, we may look back at the painting that stole the show as a warning.
“The fair’s sensation,” Madsen wrote, “was Guernica, Picasso’s invective against war, hanging in the pavilion of the Spanish Republic.”
This Picasso painting depicts the aftermath of the bombing of a town, Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The painting has been seen as a foreshadowing of the devastation World War II (1939–1945) would bring to Europe.
Robert and Sonia Delaunay had only a short while to enjoy the payoff from the attention attracted by the 1937 exposition. There was a plan proposed for Sonia, who spoke English, to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1939, according to Madsen. American art collector Solomon R. Guggenheim in 1938 took an interest in the Delaunays. They were entertained by him in luxurious style in Paris. Robert returned the favor, taking Guggenheim and his companion, painter Hilla Rebay, on a jaunty personal tour of his city
“If there was one thing that relaxed Robert it was driving. Escorting foreign visitors like Solomon Guggenheim and Hilla Rebay around Paris, shouting obscenities at other motorists, and exchanging coarse jokes with cabdrivers loosened him up. And now that money was rolling in again, Sonia and Robert decided to splurge, to drive to the Riviera for a summer vacation,” Madsen wrote.
The south of France proved a refuge for the Delaunays when Paris was under control of Nazi Germany in 1940. Many artists who also had fled Paris joined the Delaunays in trying to sell their work to raise funds. Robert met with Peggy Guggenheim, a niece of Solomon who also was an art collector, to sell her one of his older paintings. They reached an agreement on the sale, and Delaunay took home the cat that had been accompanying Guggenheim, who would soon be returning to the United States.
“Delaunay loved cats, and this one took to him at once,” Madsen quotes Guggenheim saying in his book. “Soon after this, Delaunay got very sick and wrote me many letters about his own illness and about the cat.”
Delaunay was dying of cancer, a condition that his physician and family largely kept from him. The Solomon Guggenheim Foundation offered Delaunay financial support during this time. It also provided paperwork that would have likely guaranteed the Delaunay coveted visas for Robert and Sonia to flee to the United States, Madsen wrote. But Robert was too ill by the time this arrived. He died in October 1941,
It would be up to Sonia, born to a Jewish family in Ukraine, to find a way to survive World War II and to secure her husband’s legacy. That certainly seemed a challenge.
Although Robert was a pioneer in the field of abstract painting, by 1941 it “was absurd to talk about his place in history, the value of his paintings at a time of war when a sack of potatoes or a kilo of butter caught the attention of people’s minds a lot faster than the quality of a painting,” Madsen wrote.
But Sonia adopted a successful strategy of trying to get her husband’s work into museums.
“If the name Robert Delaunay was to mean something, if Robert’s inventiveness, independence, and experimentation were to be an inspiration to new generations, his work would have to be accessible, to be visible in public museums. It could not be locked away in the homes of the rich,” Madsen wrote.
For more on the sources used in writing this essay, see my bibliography for sources on European artists. I’ve relied heavily here on Madsen’s book, checking dates and facts where possible with other sources. If I later learn of errors in the book or competing accounts to Madsen’s, I’ll update this post.