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08 Mar 2022

International Women's Day 2022 Spotlight on the life and work of artist Sonia Delaunay

Happy International Women's Day!

As a female-run business, working in an industry that has historically relied on women's labour and craft, we champion women each and every day. To mark IWD 2022 Emma & Harriet wanted to put the spotlight on a female artist that has inspired them and the way they work - there are many women they could have chosen and we would love to share their stories in the future, but with the terrible invasion of Ukraine at present, we all agreed that today we wanted to celebrate Sonia Delaunay. A talented artist much loved internationally by many, Sonia was a forward-thinking, creative, modern European woman.

Delaunay was born on 13 November 1885 in Gradizhsk, Odessa in what is now Ukraine. Her name at birth was Sarah Stern but Sonia was a childhood nickname that stuck. At the age of eight, she went to live with her wealthy uncle in St. Petersberg where she became Sonia Terk, and under the tutoring of a governess, learnt to speak 4 languages and was opened to the world of art. After leaving school at 18, Sonia persuaded her uncle to let her go to Germany to study art and from here, she moved to Paris in 1905.

Already moving in art circles and creating her own work, she met and married German critic and gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde in 1908. This marriage of convenience was a good cover for Wilhem, who was gay, and also allowed Sonia to gain residency in Paris. Uhde introduced her to Picasso, Braque, Matisse and other key figures in the thriving art scene of the time. The couple divorced within two years but remained close friends.

By 1910, Sonia had met and married artist Robert Delaunay and their son, Charles was born in 1911. The Delaunays collaborated together and developed their own abstract cubist style, which became known as 'Orphism' or 'Simultanism' - derived from Cubism but based on more harmonious compositions of bold and beautiful colours and geometric shapes. Orphism brought rhythm and movement of color to abstract art.
Sonia credited an overlapping patch-work quilt she made for her baby as the starting point for this whole movement - obviously, working with fabric and colour in this way is something that caught the attention of Emma & Harriet.

Harriet adds, "I loved her work before I even knew who she was and before I’d even begun to study or understand textiles"

Sonia was inspired by everything around her - she loved music, poetry, jewellery and textiles as well as fine art, and all these things fed into her work. This multi-disciplinary approach is something that Emma and Harriet can directly relate to, and perhaps many of you, too? When WW1 broke out, the couple moved to Spain and Sonia took a job as a costume designer while Robert designed the sets.

An original female entrepreneur, Sonia Delaunay opened a shop 'Casa Sonia' that sold accessories, furniture and textiles, but when they returned to Paris in 1921 the Delaunays needed a more regular source of income. Sonia moved away from design to everyday fashion, creating modern wearable garments featuring bold, geometric textiles. Her art intersected perfectly with her fashion designs, and she continued to paint throughout, each medium informing the other.

Throughout her lifetime, Sonia embraced many ways of working - painting, drawing, textiles, costume and set design, fashion, home decorations... and even transport! In 1924, she created a design for the new Citroen B21 (with matching fur coats!) and in 1967 she was commissioned along with 4 other contemporary artists to create a bespoke pattern for a sports car. Amazingly, her design of bold geometric blocks used optical effects so that when the car was moving, they would become one colour so as not to distract other drivers!

Robert sadly died in 1941 but Sonia Delaunay continued to work as both a painter and a designer and was an influential figure in the second wave of abstraction in the 40s and 50s, bringing together younger artists and writers. Her incredible contribution to the art world was actually recognised while she was alive, and in 1964 Delaunay made history by being the first living female artist to have a retrospective at the Louvre, Paris.

Emma and Harriet both feel Delaunay has always been a background influence on Wallace Sewell - they share the same preoccupations of simultaneous contrasts of colour, shape, proportion and rhythm, the use of colour to explore abstraction and narrative, the ability to use any colour palette and make it beautiful based on colour theory study.

Sonia Delaunay died in Paris in 1979 at the age of 94, leaving behind a great artistic legacy from a career that spanned 75 years. Even today, her work continues to inspire many students just beginning to explore design through abstraction - her work remains visually accessible and relevant; a masterclass in understanding how to balance shape, form and colour within a piece.