Artist Dossier: Sonia Delaunay

A publicity photograph from Sonia Delaunay’s design boutique at the 1925 Paris Expo shows two dark-bobbed, lipsticked models posing with a concours-ready car bedecked in colorful squares, as if wrapped in a Mondrian. The one standing next to the car sports a coat to match, and both wear driving goggles — ready, presumably, to zoom beyond outmoded distinctions between fine and applied art. Such was Delaunay’s futuristic vision of "simultaneous living," with every possible surface of the material world touched by color.

Today this innovative artist, who made paintings, prints, textiles, garments, and other design objects, is more often remembered as the wife of French painter Robert Delaunay, with whom she developed an offshoot of Cubism called Orphism that drew equally on movement and harmonics. But Susan Brown, who co-curated "Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay," on view through June 5 at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York, notes that a critical reappraisal is in the offing. "It’s my impression that she’s going to fare better in the long haul. Particularly in the past 10 years or so, there’s been a lot of focus on her work." And collectors are taking notice: Six of Delaunay’s 10 auction records were set in the past year, with prices outpacing estimates.

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"These recent successes have shown Sonia Delaunay in a new light," says Conor Jordan, head of the Impressionist and Modern Department at Christie’s New York. "Rather than seeing her as a pupil of her husband, [bidders] see something that is very much her own vision." Europeans constitute her major market, although the influx of Russian buyers in 2005 and 2006 helped diversify her base (Delaunay was born in Ukraine). "The demand is escalating along with prices, and the number of collectors who seek her works is also rising," says Thaddée Poliakoff, owner of Le Coin des Arts gallery, in Paris.

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Still, while a rare painting by Robert, like one of his cacophonous images of the Eiffel Tower, might fetch up to $6 million at auction, Sonia’s high stands at €4.1 million ($3.9 million), achieved in 2002 in Paris at the now-defunct Calmels, Chambre, Cohen by the 1915-16 encaustic on canvas "Marché au Minho," one of her early Orphic compositions. And that price remains an outlier.

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The Delaunays’ work might best be categorized as Orphic Cubism, a label coined by their friend the poet and art critic Gillaume Apollinaire in 1912. At about the time that Picasso and Braque were burrowing into the peat-and-umber end of the Cubist spectrum, Robert and Sonia, already dabbling in the movement’s flattened planes, embraced the color theories of dye chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul, who used the term "simultaneous contrast" to describe the amplifying, even dizzying effect of complementary colors placed side by side. "Robert is heralded as the founder of Orphism, but she was there alongside him throughout, doing her own version," says Molly Ott Ambler, a vice president in the Impressionist and Modern Art Department at Sotheby’s New York.

Simultaneity spoke to Sonia both as theory and as practice. With works that draw on nearly every major strand of modernism — Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Deco, Constructivism — percolating through the studios and salons of the day, Delaunay has proved something of a square peg for art historians. Her output runs the gamut: paintings, prints, books, textile and fashion designs, carpets, furniture, mosaics, and the odd movie set. "From tiles to theater, I don’t think there’s anything she didn’t do," says Leonard Fox, of Leonard Fox Ltd., in New York, who deals in the artist’s books and works on paper and is organizing a show later this year.

Born Sarah Stern in Gradizhsk in 1885, she was raised by a maternal uncle, Henri Terk, a wealthy Saint Petersburg lawyer. She went to Paris in 1905 and enrolled in the Académie de la Palette, where she learned engraving and fell under the influence of Post-Impressionists like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, traces of which are evident in her early portraits executed in voltaic color.

In a sign of the broadening market for her works, pieces from those years have lately shot up in value. The 1907 portrait "Philomène," estimated at £250,000 to £350,000 ($399-558,000), brought her second-highest auction price, £601,250 ($959,000), in the Impressionist and modern evening sale at Christie’s London in February 2010. Two other portraits earned $902,500 and $602,500 at Christie’s New York in 2010.

Sonia and Robert shared a studio on the Rue des Grands Augustins, and their social circle reads like a roll call for the early 20th-century avant-garde: Umberto Boccioni, Sergey Diaghilev, Tristan Tzara, André Breton, and Hans and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. The artists’ friendships clearly fed their innovations. An early collaboration with Blaise Cendrars, for example, produced "La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France," 1913, an epic poem illustrated with Delaunay’s stenciled "pochoir" prints. In 2004, Christie’s sold the number-one edition, from the collection of publisher Daniel Fillipacchi, in Paris for €349,250 ($413,000).

Delaunay’s archetypal pieces are those that indulge her interest in pure abstraction, which stems from her experiments with simultaneous contrasts in fabrics. Inspired by a patchwork quilt she’d made for her infant son, Charles, in 1911 the artist began exploring textile design. Applying her assertive colors to fabric, she made outré costumes with bulbous lumps or severe corners for the players in various Surrealist and Dadaist theater productions and, for her friends, tamer vests, dresses, and accessories printed with zigzags, checks, and disks. In 1922 she received her first big order, from a textile factory in Lyon; in 1928 she devised a beige-on-black grid pattern for Chanel. Brown says: "She was quite explicit in her journals that she didn’t see the decorative arts as being a degradation of her work at all, that it was really just another aspect of her life’s work."

Examples of her garments reside almost exclusively in museum collections, but gouache sketches and prints of the designs survive and sometimes come on the market. Leonard Fox has in stock a very rare 1925 catalogue of her fashion and textile creations, with original signed drawings, priced in the range of $20,000 to $25,000.

Delaunay applied similar principles to her paintings of the 1920s and ’30s. These feature geometric shapes in dynamic counterpoise, partly inspired by tango and flamenco, and have traditionally been her highest earners at auction, "but there hasn’t been a really good one to test the market for a while," says Jordan. The last, "Composition," 1934, sold for €437,600 ($561,000) at Christie’s Paris in 2006. According to Nikola Rukaj, whose Toronto gallery has long dealt in Delaunay’s works on paper, these prime paintings "are a bit difficult to come by. I think for the most part people who collect the work feel that she’s undervalued and underrated. They keep it."

Sonia continued to mine her own inspirational vein after Robert’s death, from cancer, in 1941. By 1950 or so, her Orphist tendency becomes "flattened, stretched out, made into its own mode," says Ambler. Although paintings from her 1950s and 1960s series "Rythme Coloré" and "Rythme Couleur" have historically had less cachet in the marketplace, last May, Sotheby’s New York sold a six-foot-tall blue-and-green checkered 1967 canvas from the latter series (est. $300-400,000) for $782,500. In the 1960s, Delaunay branched into designs for mosaics, rugs, even a Matra 530 racer, and it is among these one-off objects that some of the best buys might be found. "Those works that lie outside traditional categories of canvas or paper can often provoke quite a cautious approach from clients," says Jordan.

Another opportunity for collectors lies in Delaunay’s works on paper, which are dispersed equally between the auction block and gallery stock. Prices are relatively low for her prints and gouaches, thanks to a steady supply (she continued producing them until a few years before her death, in 1979), and many can be had for $5,000 or less. "Pochoirs" command the highest prices, due to rarity. According to Tudor Davies, head of prints for Christie’s Americas, "her etchings tend to be valued more highly than her lithographs, no doubt because they provide a better sense of surface." He advises collectors to "look at the strength of the composition and the use of color and contrast. Simply put, you want the image to be as strong visually as possible when it is on the wall."

Indeed, visual punch was Delaunay’s trademark, whether applied to bathing costumes or canvases, and the best examples still strike like an exclamation mark. Some of the strongest works date from around the time she won a gold medal for her murals for the 1937 Exposition Internationale in Paris. "I think those paintings will break the million-dollar barrier," predicts Rukaj. "She has nowhere to go but up."

"Artist Dossier: Sonia Delaunay" originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's April 2011 Table of Contents.