Robert Delaunay

Eumenis Megalopoulos | May 16, 2023

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Robert Delaunay was a French painter born on April 12, 1885 in Paris and died on October 25, 1941 in Montpellier. With his wife Sonia Delaunay and a few others, he was the founder and main architect of the Orphism movement, a branch of Cubism and an important avant-garde movement of the early 20th century. His work on color originates from several theories of the law of simultaneous color contrast, formulated by Michel-Eugène Chevreul. By concentrating on the arrangement of colors on the canvas, he seeks pictorial harmony.

Delaunay was part of an avant-garde generation, particularly prolific artistically between 1912 and 1914. He had close ties (in correspondence, in art, even in friendship) with the poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, the Russian painters Vassily Kandinsky and Michel Larionov, the German painters August Macke and Franz Marc, and the Slovak painter Geza Szobel.

After the war, he befriended the artists of the surrealist movement, of whom he made several portraits, without adopting their points of view and their artistic visions. He will have a strong and lasting friendship with the poet Tristan Tzara.

His name is also associated with the Eiffel Tower, which he saw being built when he was four years old, and which he painted many times in his career, using different methods, first neo-impressionist and then cubist, and then with his simultaneous method.


Robert Victor Félix Delaunay's parents, George and Berthe Delaunay, lived in an affluent building on the rue Boissière in Paris' 16th arrondissement when he was born on April 12, 1885. Robert Delaunay quickly resisted his bourgeois upbringing, as his mother over-mothered him, dressed him in English style, and took him for walks on the Champs-Élysées. Despite this refusal of bourgeois life, he remains marked by his origins. He remains indifferent to the material aspects of life, and creates for himself, like Don Quixote, a chivalrous conception of life. This character pushes him to transform every moment of life into a poetic moment.

At the age of four, his parents took him to the 1889 Paris World's Fair, for which the Eiffel Tower was built, a monument that fascinated the artist throughout his life. He became enthusiastic about modern scientific techniques, especially speed and electricity. He later visited the 1900 World's Fair, and in particular the electricity pavilion. This visit forged his spirit as a "painter of modern life".

Robert Delaunay's parents divorced when he was nine years old, on May 16, 1894. He was raised by his mother's sister, Marie de Rose, and her husband, Charles Damour.

Very early on, he developed a passion for flowers. In the castle of La Rongère, in Saint-Eloy-de-Gy, place of the family vacations, he spends long moments alone in the garden, to make sketches of flowers, which are his main natural passion, with the sun.

School did not interest him, and he took advantage of his studies to draw and paint with pastels hidden in his box. He left high school at the age of seventeen, and was hired as an apprentice in scenic design for two years (1902 to 1904), in the workshops of the theater decorator Eugène Ronsin. It is there that he develops his taste for large surfaces and monumentality, that he is sensitized to the role of the light and the plays of perspective distortion of the scenic space.

He was introduced to painting by his uncle Charles Damour, who was a traditional painter, far from all the theories and movements of his time. Robert Delaunay often defended his artistic point of view, which was very different from that of his uncle, leading to burlesque household scenes. "The plates were flying because Robert was defending his opinion" says Sonia Delaunay.

First works

In 1904 and 1905, Robert Delaunay produced his first paintings: neo-impressionist and fauvist landscapes and flowers. In 1907, he did his military service in Laon, in the Aisne. He was fascinated by the cathedral and made numerous sketches of it. He was assigned to the auxiliary service, in the officers' library. His roommate, Robert Lotiron, wrote that "at that time, Delaunay had a delirious infatuation for Spinoza, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Laforge. On October 20, 1908, he was discharged for "functional heart problems" and "endocarditis" and returned to Paris.

In 1906, he participated in the XXIst Salon des Indépendants, where he presented numerous paintings done during the previous summer. In 1907, he joined a group of young artists seeking a new art, including Jean Metzinger, Henri Le Fauconnier and Fernand Léger. At the same time, he undertook an important work on monuments in Paris. The result of his research is a personal theory on color, taking as a starting point his work Paris - Saint-Séverin (1909).

Meeting with Sonia

At the beginning of 1909, he met Sonia Stern while they were both frequenting famous artists. They attended the triumph of Louis Blériot's flight across the English Channel and spent time together in the Drôme. She was then married to Wilhelm Uhde, but it was a sham marriage. She immediately divorced and remarried on November 15, 1910 to Robert Delaunay, of whom she was pregnant. On January 18, 1911 a boy, Charles, was born. Robert painted a small Eiffel Tower, which he gave to Sonia as an engagement present.

Maturity and abstraction

In 1910, influenced by Cubism, particularly that of Cézanne, Robert Delaunay reduced his color palette to monochrome, then, under the influence of Sonia, he reintroduced warm colors. In 1912, he turned to Orphism with his series of Windows (in the Grenoble Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art). With Sonia Delaunay, he created simultaneism, based on the law of simultaneous color contrast. He entered into correspondence with the pioneer of abstract art, Vassili Kandinsky, whose theoretical text On the Spiritual in Art (which Sonia translated for him from German) would greatly influence and guide him.

The two artists also helped each other to obtain places in exhibitions and in the critics; they were truly friends. It was thanks to Kandinsky that Delaunay was able to be exhibited in Moscow, where he presented three untitled works. The year 1912 was eventful for Robert Delaunay: he exhibited in Moscow, Munich, Berlin, Paris and Zurich, befriended the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (who came to live in his studio during the months of November and December) and Blaise Cendrars, met Paul Klee (with whom he corresponded), Alberto Giacometti, Henri Matisse and Henri Le Fauconnier, and painted the series of Windows, which marked a major turning point in his work.

In 1913, Delaunay left to exhibit in Berlin with Guillaume Apollinaire, and took advantage of the opportunity to meet the German artists of the time: Franz Marc, Max Ernst and August Macke. "Delaunay and Apollinaire stayed for a day and a night. To my great joy, their preference was for my latest works," he says. Paul Klee translates Delaunay's theoretical text "La Lumière" into German, which appears in the magazine Der Sturm in January under the title "Über das Licht". Apollinaire writes the poem Les Fenêtres (The Windows), which serves as a preface to the painter's series of homonymous paintings. In February, Alexandra Exter wrote to the Delaunay couple asking them to enter them in the Salon des Indépendants, as well as Michel Larionov and Nathalie Goncharoff. Robert Delaunay entered into correspondence with all these artists of the Russian avant-garde; it was he who introduced them to the French public. At that time, Apollinaire considered him to be the most influential painter along with Picasso: "There are new trends in modern painting; the most important ones seem to me to be, on the one hand, Picasso's cubism, and on the other hand, Delaunay's orphism" (Guillaume Apollinaire Die Moderne Malerei in Der Sturm, February 1913).

Throughout this period, he painted his pictures in the small town of Louveciennes, where he had a residence with Sonia, and only went to Paris or abroad once his work was finished, to present it or to see his painter and poet friends.

First called up for military service and then declared a deserter, Robert used his connections and obtained his discharge from the French Consulate in Vigo on June 13, 1916. He and Sonia Delaunay stayed in Spain and Portugal for the duration of the war, until 1922. He continued to paint, notably with a series on Portuguese Markets, but also Still Life and Nude at the Toilet. The Delaunays took advantage of this time to spend long days at the Prado Museum, and Robert Delaunay became fascinated by the works of Rubens and El Greco. When they returned to France, the Dada movement was at its peak.

Back in Paris, the Delaunays frequented many poets and musicians, but few painters, and rubbed shoulders with the Surrealist milieu, as evidenced by the many portraits of friends made during this period, including those of Tristan Tzara, a faithful friend of André Breton and Philippe Soupault in the 1920s and 1930s. They were also linked to Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau and Igor Stravinsky, and received the Russian poet Vladimir Maïakovski. The friendly meetings allowed Robert Delaunay to present his literary theories, which he later put on paper.

He repainted the Eiffel Tower several times, as the "giant" lends itself well to his research on simultaneous color contrasts. But compared to the towers he painted in his youth, the work is significantly different.

In the 1920s, he diversified his work, for example by working with Fernand Léger in the decorative arts. He participates in the exhibition of decorative arts in 1925, which summarizes the research of all countries in the field of applied arts. Sonia Delaunay also follows this path, and obtains more recognition than him. He composed the same year the sets of several films.

Delaunay returned to abstract orphism with his Rhythm series, composed for the most part in 1934. This series seems to be the culmination of his research on pictorial harmony. At the same time, he began to research new materials. His work is highlighted by an exhibition commented at length by an article by Jean Cassou.

The commissions for the 1937 International Exhibition allowed him to create huge frescoes and monumental paintings, including those of the Air and Railway Pavilion. The fresco of the air palace is an enlarged representation of a canvas from the Rhythm series. The following year he decorated the sculpture hall at the Salon des Tuileries, for which he executed three large Rhythms, his last important works.

In 1940, he fled the Nazi advance by taking refuge in Montpellier, in the Free Zone, with Joseph Delteil. He continued to be involved in artistic life. Settled in Mougins, he created a veritable Delaunay museum with his wiggling towers. The painter Albert Aublet often visited him at the time when he supported the young figurative painter Nicolas de Staël. He again suffered from lung problems and died on October 25, 1941.

Robert Delaunay's work is generally divided chronologically into two parts: the neo-impressionism of his youth on the one hand, and orphism, a branch of cubism and avant-garde of abstraction, constituting his maturity (from about 1912) on the other. His work entered the public domain on January 1, 2012.


Initially influenced by impressionism and synthetism, Delaunay turned to neo-impressionism after meeting Jean Metzinger, who invited him to immerse himself in theoretical writings on color, such as De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs by Eugène Chevreul. Such essays convinced him that colors are interdependent and interact with each other according to their distribution in the spectrum. This discovery marked him all his life.

Between 1904 and 1906, he produced a series of portraits and self-portraits in which he applied the broad brushstroke technique of Divisionism. At the same time, he produced a series of landscapes, again using the Divisionist method, including the famous Landscape with Disc, painted in the last days of 1906.

In 1906, in The Portrait of Henri Carlier, Robert Delaunay already asserted his singularity in the choice of color scheme: the dominant greens and purples meet zones of brilliant red. The violet he applied was unusual for the time, and was undoubtedly borrowed from the Divisionist painter Cross, and his work was influenced by long discussions with Jean Metzinger.


Robert Delaunay moved into abstraction with the series Les Fenêtres, presented from 1912 to 1913. It inaugurates a long series of research on the possibility of translating "representative harmony", by the sole arrangement of colors. The colors replace the objects, which no longer have any substance and give way to the light. This passage to the abstraction is made after the reading of the theories of Vassily Kandinsky in his manifesto book Of the spiritual in the art, and whereas Guillaume Apollinaire diagnoses in 1912 the birth of a new pictorial art: " The new painters paint pictures where there is not any more real subject ". But, unlike Vassily Kandinsky who gives a psychological and mystical content to his works, Robert Delaunay only exploits "the purely physical effect". He explains himself by being inspired by a text of Léonard de Vinci: "The eye is our highest sense, the one which communicates most closely with our brain, the conscience. The idea of a vital movement of the world and its movement is simultaneous. Our understanding is correlative to our perception". At this time, Delaunay also did a lot of research on colors and more specifically on the law of simultaneous color contrast. With Sonia Delaunay, he created simultaneism, a technique that aims to find pictorial harmony through the simultaneous arrangement of colors, and which focuses primarily on the role of light, which is perceived as the original creative principle.

In 1913, after the series Les Fenêtres, Robert Delaunay produced a series called L'Équipe de Cardiff, devoted to sports, particularly football-rugby, a sport that was booming at the time. Thus, he chose a subject that had not been treated much until then, which responded well to the "modernolatry" of Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire. He agreed with the newspapers of the time, which praised the "spirit of vitality" of the new generation. The painting presents a combative vision of modern life, where the cult of action invites to surpass oneself.

This series is not abstract: rugby players are represented in front of a Ferris wheel and the Eiffel Tower, in an assembly of posters and colors. The setting is resolutely urban: it is the billboard that takes up the most space in the painting. He organizes his painting as a juxtaposition of elements arranged simultaneously. The image of the players seems to come from an English magazine he owned, and the motifs of the Ferris wheel, the billboard and the Eiffel Tower from a postcard that was found in his belongings. The grouping of the four elements is done thanks to the median line, a sinusoidal axis that cuts the painting in two, while making its unity. This axis allows the passage to an architecture without foundations, which seems to fly in the air.

At the next Salon, in 1914, Robert Delaunay presented the painting Homage to Blériot, a true manifesto of his simultaneous method. The movements of the canvas are driven by forms borrowed from aeronautics: biplane, propeller. The airplane, symbol of man's emancipation from the Earth, offered Robert Delaunay a pretext to break free from the codes of traditional painting and move towards the "inobjective" and "pure painting". He chose the airplane because it abolished the notions of distance, and allowed the painter to move towards a panoramic ubiquity. He opposes a harmonic plenitude to the descriptive attempts of the past. Similarly, this motif, like that of the Eiffel Tower, allows him to claim to be a painter of modernity. The painter's preference for the curve is perceptible (unlike the abstract painters Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian), already affirmed in the series of Flowers (1909), and which will continue in the Circular Forms.

After presenting his series The Cardiff Team at the Salon des Indépendants in early 1913, he retired to Louveciennes and began an important series entitled Circular Forms. With this work, Robert Delaunay wished to render the power of sunlight, a theme he had already sketched in his 1906 painting Landscape with a Disc, and lunar irradiation. About one of the works in this series, he later declared that it was the "first circular painting, the first non-figurative painting". With this painting he reveals his interest in the (partly erroneous) scientific theories of color in the 19th century. In the painting Circular Forms, Sun No. 2, the three primary colors: blue, red and yellow, are at the ends of a distorted triangle that gives a feeling of rotation of the whole. For Delaunay, this effect results from the swirling of the colored patterns, descending for the blue and ascending for the red. Between these primary colors appear secondary colors, obtained by mixing the first: orange, green and purple. The whole swirls around the center, the original and final color, white. It is not the sun that is represented, but the process of perception by the eye

In August 1913, still in Louveciennes, he produced a solitary work called Disque (Le Premier Disque), which consists of seven concentric circles divided into four equal segments. While there were many colored circles in his Formes Circulaires series, in this painting Robert Delaunay concentrates on the purity of the flat surface; nevertheless, it is not just a detail of a previous work, it is a work in its own right, part of Delaunay's research on pictorial harmony. This work, unquestionably non-objective, is of great importance in the history of art.

While in Spain and Portugal during the war, he renewed his themes, moving from the city to popular life in the markets or at home, but his artistic technique remained the same. Characters are drawn in a figurative way, but are surrounded by abstract objects; on these same canvases, colors burst forth and are used in complete freedom. The light of the Iberian Peninsula was much stronger than that of the Île-de-France, from where Robert Delaunay had hardly left, which allowed him to observe and render a new type of color vibration in his paintings.

In the 1920s, Robert Delaunay reworked the Eiffel Tower in a significantly different way. The tower no longer collapses, but rises up, seen from a low angle, in such a way that it seems to grow infinitely. At other times, the tower is seen from the sky and associated with the curves of the Champ de Mars; for these views, he used aerial photographs. He draws from his composition the dynamism of rhythm, and the arrangement of unrealistic colors.

In 1925, he participated in the exhibition of decorative arts, for which he decorated the hall of an embassy with Fernand Leger. He chose the theme of The Woman in the Tower, which he reproduced on a panel of over four meters, and caused a violent scandal.

The many portraits of friends and acquaintances that he painted in those years were indeed figurative, but Robert Delaunay always used bright, powerful colors. For example, in Portrait of Tristan Tzara, the main element is not the poet's face, but the orange and green scarf he wears around his neck.

Around 1930, a rather difficult-to-explain turnaround occurred, which led Delaunay to return to Orphism, beginning a series entitled Rhythms, which revisited the Circular Forms produced in the 1910s in a new and more mature way, drawing inspiration from the work of Piet Mondrian, and the artists grouped under the name of abstraction-geometry (most of whom acknowledged an artistic debt to him). He showed his mastery in the arrangement of colors, and achieved the goal he had sought in the early Orphic years: pictorial harmony.

At the same time, while he was almost always content to remain within the classical technique of painting (except for the decorative arts), he began to research new pictorial techniques, which Jean Cassou described in detail in an article published in 1935 in the magazine Art et décoration: "These coatings, in the composition of which casein dominates, can be applied to cardboard or canvas. It is possible to paint them in fresco, in oil or in egg. Delaunay mixed his casein with pastes made with cork powders and thus obtained thicknesses with sawdust. The interest of these materials is that once hardened, they can be used for exteriors and resist atmospheric agents. Delaunay also used a whole range of sand colors, in particular Colorado sand, which he sprayed on his casein plasters with an air gun. The colorations thus obtained are unalterable to light and unattackable to water. Another material due to Delaunay's ingenuity is lacquered stone, which can be used to create walls of varied and attractive colors. It is a light, non-flammable material that is ideal for use in the navy. It can reach the density of marble and the resistance of cement: but this is its superiority over cement, it has its own coloring. It can also be produced in white surfaces, on which the paint adheres perfectly. It is useless to point out that one can arrange casein pastes according to decorative reliefs as complex and free as one wishes. Robert Delaunay thus passes from the easel to the artistic work on the walls. He explained this in the magazine Commune: "I, the artist, the manual artist, am making a revolution in the walls. At the moment, I have found new materials that transform the wall, not only externally but in its very substance. To separate the man from the art? Never. I can't separate man from art because I make houses for him! While the fashion was for the easel painting, I was already thinking only of great wall works."

These wall works will find their highlight in the International Exhibition of 1937, for which he creates huge decorations. As early as 1935, he was approached to participate in this gigantic exhibition, but, unlike many artists, he did not apply; attention was drawn to him thanks to an exhibition organized by the magazine Art et décoration, entitled Revêtements muraux en relief et en couleurs de Robert Delaunay, in 1935. He made the decoration of the Palace of the Railroad and Air. For the latter, he reproduced on a large scale his painting Rythme sans fin. The will was also to make leave the avant-garde of its small circle of initiates, and to put it within reach of everyone.

Robert Delaunay painted abstract works during two periods in his life: first around 1912 and 1913, with the series of Cities, Circular Forms and the painting Simultaneous Disc, which made him one of the pioneers of abstraction; then around 1933 and 1934, when he painted the series Rhythms and Endless Rhythms. Yet at no time did he define his art as abstract. This is because he felt he was a cubist, was seen by critics and the public as a cubist painter, and his works were interpreted as such. To distance himself from the other "-isms" that were flourishing at the time, he created his own movement, simultaneism, because of his chromatic research on colors. He considers himself a "heresiarch of Cubism". Moreover, he states in a letter to August Macke in 1913 that "One thing that is indispensable to me is the direct observation, in nature, of the luminous essence", which distances him from the theoreticians of abstract art, such as Piet Mondrian, who would like to see an art completely cut off from nature. However, some of his works are indisputably abstract, including the series mentioned above. In order to represent light, which appears to be a natural element, he had to resort to non-figurative forms, without any direct link to reality. To render the essence of light, he chose to use color schemes, without representing an object. Sonia Delaunay, for her part, notes in her diary (published in 1978 by Robert Laffont, p. 137) "I have finished Dorival's book. At the end of his book he summarizes his first volume by demonstrating that all the painting of this period announces a painting that moves away from Realism, an inobjective painting, all the paintings that we know are only stammerings. It is astonishing to understand and how close it is to us! This is the first time I have seen someone from so far away and so close. It's too bad Delaunay didn't know him."

Works of youth

: document used as a source for the writing of this article.


  1. Robert Delaunay
  2. Robert Delaunay
  3. « » (consulté le 5 mai 2023)
  4. Selon l'acte no 388, dans l'état-civil de la ville de Paris 16e arrondissement, naissance de 1885.
  5. ^ Jenkins, Sarah. "Robert Delaunay Biography, Life & Quotes". The Art Story. Retrieved 25 February 2022.
  6. Robert Delaunay (Memento vom 13. Januar 2009 im Internet Archive),, abgerufen am 26. November 2015
  7. Az orfizmus a szín, a fény elsődlegességét hirdető irányzat. A nevet Apollinaire alkotta Orfeusz nevéből. Sonia és Robert Delaunay, František Kupka, H.P. Bruce sorolhatók az irányzathoz. Rokon irányzat a Goncsarova és Larionov nevével fémjelzett rayonizmus.
  8. Delaunay csatlakozása a kubizmushoz bizonyos mértékig meglepő, ismerve vonzódását a színekhez, a fényhez, míg a kubisták közismerten tagadták a szín jelentőségét.

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