Parisian Insights: Sonia Delaunay – The Colors of Abstraction

I first began to develop an interest in Sonia Delaunay’s work during my early years at l’Ecole du Louvre, studying history of art. It was with the avant-garde movements of art that mingled all forms of creation, from painting to furniture and textile, that I built my passion for the history of fashion. Sonia Delaunay thus belonged to those innovative artists that fueled my curiosity and it is with much pleasure that I visited the Musée d’Art Moderne’s exhibition dedicated to her. The display is an incredible retrospective that features about 400 works raging from her earliest expressionist paintings and drawings to her late abstract pieces and, of course, her experiences in design and fashion.  Sonia Delaunay, The Colors of Abstraction perfectly emphasizes the artist’s affection for color and how she used it to build dynamism and unusual forms on any kind of canvas. Her life and work spreading from the Belle Epoque to the 1970s, the exhibition explores how her manner evolved during those years, placing it in a wider historical context thanks to photographies and videos of the periods.

Sonia Delaunay's son blanket, 1911

Sonia Delaunay’s son blanket, 1911

From a Russian background, Sonia Terk settled in Paris in 1906 and soon met Robert Delaunay who would become her husband and with whom she would explore a new form of abstract art based on the constructive and dynamic power of color: Simultanism. Promptly, Sonia Delaunay applied these colorful and rhythmic researches to various supports and techniques. Her relationship with textile began at her son, Charles’ birth when she imagined a blanket – presented in the display alongside her early abstract paintings – inspired by Russian folklore: a patchwork of colorful cubes that fueled their artistic concept and her will to apply their art to a new supple canvas. When World War I begins, the Delaunay family settles in Spain and Sonia Delaunay collaborates with Serge Diaghilev for the creation of costumes for a Cleopatra show danced by the Ballets Russes. Her costumes being a huge success, Sonia Delaunay becomes highly popular and thus opens a lifestyle boutique in Madrid, the Casa Sonia. When they return to Paris, the artist and designer concentrates on fashion and creates numerous textiles for the home but also simultaneous dresses, bathing suits, coats with forms dictated by colors and movement built by her intense geometric patterns. At the same time, she also works with the Dutch department store, Metz & Co that sells her fabrics.

Sonia Delaunay- Gloria Swanson coat

Sonia Delaunay- Gloria Swanson coat, 1924

In the display, textiles and fashion – within glass cases – mostly occupy the central room within the sections dedicated to the Factory and the 19, boulevard Malsherbes, the address of their home and dressmaking workshop – a commercial venture far from her artistic ideals but that met with much success at the 1925 International Exposition during which she collaborated with the Parisian couturier, Jacques Heim. Her colorful fashion is the mark of avant-garde personalities who dare to stand out and some of her clients are Nancy Cunard or Gloria Swanson for whom she imagines an impressive art coat presented here. The sections dedicated to Dance and Theatre (and cinema) also feature textile objects, the drawings and costumes she created while she joined forces with literature when she imagined the concept of the poem dress: dresses that bore her colors and the words of poets such as Tristan Tzara and Blaise Cendrars, once again adding a fundamental sense of modernity to her practice.  Sonia Delaunay saw color as ‘the skin of the world’, thus no wonder she intended to apply her art to fashion, our very own second skin. With her bold designs, she offered 1920s chic and modern women a daring alternative to couturier’s elegant designs. She enabled them to wear the latest innovative fashion but also the piece of art of an avant-garde artist. Often compared to Italian Futurists, Sonia Delaunay differed from their experiments as she concentrated on the chromatic effects that changed the dynamism and forms of her clothing while Giacomo Balla and the Futurists insisted on the cuts of garments and their movement in action.

Sonia Delaunay - Swimsuits, 1928

Sonia Delaunay – Swimsuits, 1928

After the stock-market crash of 1929, Sonia Delaunay put an end to her fashion venture and remained concentrated on textile design until her husband’s death, in 1941. She then returned to painting and was finally recognized from the 1960s as a major artist and inspired fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent, Moschino or Jean-Charles de Castelbajac . An artist that broke all the boundaries between arts and was eager to link art and everyday life as well as she announced with much modernism, the rise of ready-to-wear. A bright and airy display, the Musée d’Art Moderne exhibition is beautiful and incredibly complete with its numerous hanging photographies, paintings, drawings, illustrations…It is truly interesting to juxtapose all her creations and look at them via the prism of their original context – the exhibition features important material culture in a way French institutions have rarely done. It is lively and buoyant and never marks any rupture between her painting and her design work. A must-see! 

P.S: The exhibition will travel to the Tate in London from April 2015.

Further Resources: The Catalogue: Montfort, Anne. Sonia Delaunay. Paris: MAM, 2014.

Damase, Jacques. Sonia Delaunay – Fashion and Fabrics. London: Henry N Abrams, 1991.

Morano, Elizabeth. Sonia Delaunay – Art into Fashion. New York: George Braziller, 1987.

Timmer, Petra. Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay. New York: Smithsonian Design Museum, 2011.

And have a look at Melissa’s review on the Color Moves exhibition: interesting to see that the Cooper Hewitt display had proposed parallels between Sonia Delaunay’s work and that of her contemporaries. Something I would have loved seeing at the Parisian exhibition.

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  • ian drummond January 27, 2015 09.49 am

    This exhibit was so amazing and comprehensive, I found it very difficult to walk through the exit knowing I could not go back and tour it again. I bought pretty much all the shop had to offer including the hardcover exhibit book, despite the fact it was in French; a picture is still worth a thousand words!
    While in Paris I also took in the Nikki de St Phalle retrospective, a wonderful, delightful, bookend to the Delaunay. 2 very distinguished artists, what a treat!!

  • Hayley-Jane January 28, 2015 07.46 am

    Yes, I completely agree and how wonderful to have been able of putting Nikki de Saint Phalle and Sonia Delaunay’s works in perspective. I’m planning to treat myself with a second visit the the Delaunay show: the first time I’ll ever do such a thing – that must tell how much I loved it!


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