French Jewish artist Sonia Delaunay-Terk is best known for her colorful abstract paintings and textiles, though her work encompassed many genres and mediums. While her husband’s work, French painter Robert Delaunay, has been extensively shown and written about during his lifetime and after his death in 1941, Sonia has remained for many decades an ignored figure in art history. The couple married in 1910 and Sonia Terk adopted her husband’s last name. Together they participated in the Orphism movement derived from Cubism and Fauvism: creating abstract paintings for the sake of aesthetic pleasure rather than representation or symbols.
Both Sonia and Robert started their art practice with painting, but while Robert still painted figurative works—such as his series of Eiffel Tower—, Sonia experimented with abstraction early on. She had no hesitation to bring her art closer to life, most notably through applied arts and design. Throughout the 1910s and the interwar period, the Delaunays created multiple paintings, works on paper, murals—and entire rooms—with the vivid colors of abstraction. It is fascinating to see the influence and inspiration that went both ways: Sonia’s geometric shapes influencing Robert’s paintings (Homage to Bleriot, 1913), and Robert’s figurative style on her own paintings (Flamenco Singers, 1916), and perhaps inspiring Sonia to design clothes—dressing figures in abstraction. Even, Ballets Russes’ founder Serge Diaghilev asked her to design the costumes for his production of Cléôpatre in 1918. The title-role costume, today in LACMA’s collection, is like Sonia’s most eye-catching paintings: a bright multi-colored (with a dominant yellow) simple dress made of silk and wool, with lines of gold and rainbows, sequins and mirrors. The costume’s patterns are abstract, yet it gives the character of Cleopatra her majesty and mother-goddess warmth.