Friday, April 29, 2011


By Polly Guerin, Fashion Historian

As a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology I often discussed innovations in color and especially Sonia Delaunay, the painter, textile designer and exceptional colorist who weaves a tale of intrigue worthy of a romantic novel. The unlikely connection between Sonia and the German art collector, Wilhelm Uhde is an interesting case of serendipity.

"I became aware of Sonia through the remarkable film, Seraphine," depicting the French artist Seraphine Louis of Senil who William Uhde, the avant-garde art dealer, discovered and sold the untrained maid's primitive art works. Wilhelm Uhde was a visionary, a man who also recognized exceptional talent in the young artist Sonia Terk (Delaunay). He played a major role in Delaunay’s life by introducing the young artist to Parisian society and presenting her paintings in his gallery. Delaunay was a woman determined to succeed and married Uhde in a union that brought her to the forefront of the art world. This kind of saga is worthy of romantic writer’s consideration for it is a riveting story about a marriage of convenience and the Robert and Sonia Delaunay romance.

A Marriage of Convenience

In 1908 Sonia was pressured by the demands of her influential and wealthy family in Saint Petersburg to take steps to conform to Russian tradition. Despite this restriction she had managed to persuade her family to let her study in France and it was during her first year in Paris that she met, met and shortly thereafter married the homosexual art collector and gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde. This union was a marriage of convenience to satisfy her parent's demands and at the same time for Uhde, through this public marriage to Sonia, would 'save face' so to speak and mask his homosexuality, which under law at that time was prohibited. The marriage was an amicable arrangement and through Uhde's impressive connections and the gallery exhibitions of Sonia's art work it establish her as a significant artist in Paris.

Love in Paris

Love walked in one day when Robert Delaunay's aunt, a frequent visitor to the Uhde Gallery, introduced Sonia to her nephew, Robert Delaunay, himself an artist. There was instant attraction and by April 1909 Sonia and Robert became lovers. They were two artists of kindred spirit but with Sonia's unexpected pregnancy it was decided for the sack of proprietary that she and Uhde should divorce. The Delaunay's son, Charles was born the next year.

Struggling Artists

During the early period of the Delaunay's marriage, they garnered a meager income and were supported by funds sent from Sonia's aunt in St. Petersburg, Russia. However, about this time cubist works were introduced in Paris and Robert and Sonia were at the forefront of the movement, which would change their circumstances considerably. Robert had been studying color theories and "designsimultaneisme," which is similar to the Pointillism, as used by Georges Seurat in which primary color dots placed next to each other are "mixed" by the eye of the beholder. And Sonia began a series of non-figurative paintings called, Contrastes Simultanes, combining geometric forms with bright, prismatic hues. This work was based on the theory of the simultaneous contrast of colors of the 19th century chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul. Sonia became a leading Parisian artist of Orphism. In the Delaunay's collaboration financial success was eminent.

The Orphism Movement

Credit goes to the Delaunay's friend, poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire who coined the term 'Orphism,' a movement which developed out of Cubism, which made color the primary means of artistic expression. Sonia's work extended from painting to textile design, fashion, wall coverings and stage set design. In 1924 she opened a fashion studio together with the French Haute Couture designer, Jacques Heim. Brilliantly colored and sharply patterned geometric designs were lavishly displayed in the creation of her 'simultaneous' fashions and stopped traffic in Paris when Sonia appeared wearing a totally coordinated ensemble (cloche hat, coat and matching dress) that merged Orphism art and fashion with the interior of her automobile which was upholstered in matching textile. Sonia exhibited her diverse collection in the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which gave way later to the term "Art Deco.”

Early Influences

Sonia Delaunay (nee Terk 1885-1979) was sent at a young age to St. Petersburg where she lived with her mother's brother Henri Terk, a successful and affluent Jewish lawyer. Although her mother was reluctant at first to submit to the plan, Sonia was adopted by the Anna and Henri Terk in 1890. Through this privileged upbringing with the Terks' she traveled widely in Europe which introduced Sonia to museums and galleries. In St. Petersburg her skill at drawing was noted by her teacher and when she was eighteen she was sent to art school in Germany, where she attended the Academy of Fine Arts. After reading a book which claimed that Paris was the center of the true art world, Sonia made one of her most decisive decisions and moved to the capital of light where her career took off through her marriage to Uhde. Sonia Delaunay-Terk died in 1979 in Paris at the age of 94 leaving a legacy of color and textile ingenuity that has influenced countless artists who followed. ♥

Polly Guerin is a former professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and has lectured on color psychology as well as fashion presentations. Her two textbooks, CREATIVE FASHION PRESENTATION I and II, and the video she created, The Story of Color, are considered the definitive works on the subject fashion and color. Currently Polly is seeking an agent for her book; THE MESSAGE IS IN THE RAINBOW, on color psychology.


  1. What a fascinating post Polly, love always saves the day, huh?:)

  2. I'm so pleased i came across this biography on sonia delaunay. my third grade students are looking at sonia and robert delaunay's paintings and creating their own water color paintings inspired by orphism.