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Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) - Abolishing the hierarchy between the arts

Textile, painting, fashion, theatre decors and costumes, interior design, illustrations, advertising… This is the non exhaustive list of the fields in which Sonia Delaunay applied her ideas. During a time where fine arts and decorative arts were generally strongly divided (the latter often being despised by art historians), she developed a comprehensive, vanguard practice.

Sonia Delaunay and two friends, Paris, 1924 (1)

Sonia Delaunay was born in 1885 in what we, today, call Ukraine, in a rather destitute jewish family. She was adopted as a child by her uncle, a wealthy lawyer living in St. Petersburg and he gave her a progressive, cosmopolitan education, letting her study arts in Germany and France. In 1905, Delaunay arrived in Paris and quickly decided that she had to stay. When her adoptive parents refused, she arranged a “convenience marriage” for herself with a friend, the gallerist Wilhelm Uhde. The contract stipulated that they will divorce whenever they find true love, which, as it was, happened when she met Robert Delaunay. (1)

"Rythme Couleur", Sonia Delaunay, 1964 (2)

Together, Sonia and Robert Delaunay created Orphism, a movement of “colour simultaneism”. They didn’t want Orphism to be a pictorial movement, however, but instead, an aesthetic one. Their colours and shapes have to go beyond the frame of the painting and decorate fabrics, furniture, objects, they decided; they have to be present in every field of life. ‘’Sonia is convinced that, to renew itself, art of her time has to abolish the hierarchy between minor and major arts.’’. (3)

Sonia Delaunay, Three Women, 1925 (3)

And to do so, she founded the Maison Sonia, a creative studio where she sold her fashion and interior design creations (rugs, tapestry, bags, tableware etc). She also designed dance costumes, including the ones of the Cleopatra ballet by Diaghilev, in 1918. Her approach to fashion was innovative : she wanted it to be joyful and colorful, but also in adequation with the ‘’real-life requirements of women’’. (5) In her clothes, women can work, dance and play sports. Hence, in her 1927 lecture at the Sorbonne The Influence of Painting on the Art of Clothes, she explained her conception of fashion and the reasons why she moved towards ready-to-wear : “at the present time, fashion is passing through a critical stage which corresponds to a period of revolution. Some time before the first world war it began to free itself from academic couture: it got rid of the corset, the high collar, all those elements of women’s dress demanded by the aesthetic of fashion but which were contrary to hygiene and the freedom of movement.” (5)

Simultaneous Dresses (Three women, Forms, Colours), 1925 (4)

Sonia Delaunay pioneered art in all its aspects. Yet, her legacy has often been minimized by those who considered that applied arts were not as prestigious as fine arts and those who perceived her as the wife of Robert Delaunay rather than as an artist for herself. Her example may symbolize these number of women-artists who struggled to gain recognition, and were sometimes eclipsed by their male counterparts : the 400 women of the Bauhaus (who were banned from any studio besides textile and craft), Anni Albers, Gerda Taro, Jo Hopper, Lee Krasner, Elizabeth Catlett, Dora Maar…

Two models wearing fur coats designed by Sonia Delaunay,

in front of a car painted after one of her fabric, Paris 1925 (5)

This recognition will eventually come, but it may be a slow process. Women art pieces only represented 12% of the main american museums acquisitions over the past decade, and 14% of the exhibitions. (6) Museums are not the only ones to be blamed : the art market also greatly favours men, with women barely representing 2 percent of the global sales in 2018-2019. (7) It is the task of education, of art institutions and of the art world in general to work on regaining a gender balance, and to highlight the contribution of women in the arts.

More on gender inequalities in the arts :

Footnotes and links :

2. Ibid.

5. Sonia Delaunay in The Influence of Painting on the Art of Clothes, la Sorbonne 1927

Pictures :

1. Sonia Delaunay and two friends in Robert Delaunay’s studio, rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris, 1924, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

2. "Rythme Couleur", Sonia Delaunay, 1964 (Pracusa 2013057 © Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris / Roger-Viollet)

3. Simultaneous Dresses (Three women, Forms, Colours) 1925, Courtesy of Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Centre de Documentation et de Recherche du Mnam-Cci, Paris

4. Two models wearing fur coats designed by Sonia Delaunay, in front of a car manufactured by Heim and painted after one of Delaunay's fabric, in front of the Pavillon du Tourisme designed by Mallet-Stevens, International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts, Paris 1925. Bibliothèque nationale de France

5. Museum Acquisitions of Work by Women vs Total Acquisitions, Charting Gender Inequality, Beatriz Lozano, 09/19/220

Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.

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