NEW YORK — Born in Ukraine, Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979) is best known as a French artist, as she spent most of her career working in Paris in the fields of art, textiles, fashion, and set design. She was all about color, and her groundbreaking designs preceded those of the Color Field painters by several decades. Her striking combinations of vivid hues were accentuated by repeating patterns, which worked together to highlight complementary and contrasting swaths of color.
She and her artist husband, Robert, developed an art style they called Simultaneisme (Simultanism), a term apparently derived from a 19th-century scientific color theory. Simultanism was not about how figures or objects are portrayed in a painting, but instead concentrated on generating simultaneous contrasts of colors. The Delaunays’ work was also associated with Orphism, a branch of Cubism that was inspired by the Fauve artists and characterized by a strong use of color and the search for visual harmony through abstract forms.
Eva Palazuelos, a specialist in Impressionist and Modern Art at Tajan in Paris, said Delaunay’s works appeal to collectors because of her significant contribution to abstract art and Simultaneism. “Her innovative use of vivid colors and geometric shapes creates dynamic compositions that captivate the eye,” she said. “In addition, her involvement in textile design and fashion broadened her influence, adding a practical and aesthetic dimension to her creations. The diversity of her work and its impact on several artistic fields make her a sought-after artist among collectors.”
“In recent years, the growing interest in the work of women artists has also contributed to her notoriety,” she said, adding that it’s important to note that in 1964, Delaunay was the first woman to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in her lifetime, and she was also awarded the Légion d’Honneur.
“As a pioneer of abstract art, the most sought-after period in Sonia Delaunay’s work is undoubtedly her Orphic period. This period, in which she worked closely with her husband Robert Delaunay, extends mainly between the 1910s and 1930s, and is marked by the bold use of color and geometric forms,” Palazuelos said. “Two major works from this period stand out: Prose du Transsibérien… (1913), in which she illustrates a poem by her friend Blaise Cendrars — probably my favorite of her works — and Prismes électriques (1914), an oil on canvas preserved at the Centre Georges Pompidou.”
One of the top-selling artworks by Delaunay at Tajan was a 1975 gouache and black chalk on paper, Rythme couleur, which made €29,000 ($31,425) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. She gave many artworks this title, and revisited this motif often throughout her career. “This gouache aroused the curiosity of several bidders because, although late, it evoked ‘Les Rythmes’ colors,” Palazuelos explained.
Delaunay didn’t restrict herself to the canvas, however. Her ventures into textile and fabric art began with a patchwork crib blanket she made for her infant son in 1911. She preferred to make her own clothes, and in her twenties, she often went nightclubbing while wearing her own designs.
Textile works and her contributions to fashion, particularly during the interwar period, are highly sought-after for their originality and their influence in the art world, Palazuelos said, noting that later periods may also be of interest, depending on Delaunay’s stylistic evolutions and art market trends. A fitting example, proving that her textiles are as cherished as her paintings, is her tapestry titled Autumn. The model for the work was created circa 1970, and it was woven by the Ateliers Pinton in Aubusson from a cartoon by the artist. The wool tapestry attained €46,000 ($49,850) plus the buyer’s premium at Piasa in October 2023.
Carpets bearing Delaunay’s artwork are also desirable and typically were produced in limited editions by Artcurial Editions of Paris. A tufted wool carpet, Pierrot Lunaire – N°, number 65 from an edition of 100 and done in blue, yellow, green, purple, black, orange, and gray, went out at €16,000 ($17,335) plus the buyer’s premium at Piasa in June 2021.
Most of her paintings are pure abstraction, but a self-portrait she did resonated with bidders, who pushed it well above its $20,000-$30,000 estimate to $45,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Hindman in September 2021. According to the auctioneer, this image of Delaunay wearing a hat and surrounded by colorful divided circles came from an 1916 gallery exhibition that was to feature her and her husband’s art. As most of his paintings were spoken for by other concurrent shows, he dropped out, and the exhibition became her first major solo show. “For the exhibit, she created a series of studies of self-portraits to be used on the covers of the exhibition catalogue, of which the present work is an example,” Hindman wrote in its catalog description.
A 1928 gouache dating to when she was extensively involved in set design is Projet de décor, which brought CHF22,000 ($25,345) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at Piguet Hotel des Ventes. Recorded in Delaunay’s archives, this drawing evidently was for a ballet, Les Quatre Saisons (The Four Seasons), to be choreographed by Leonide Massine, which was never produced.
“Sonia Delaunay’s works are quite rare on the market, and that’s why they are so successful at auction, attracting so many collectors,” Palazuelos said. “Many of the works are privately owned, and the few that we had the honor of presenting for sale were part of French collections. Current economic conditions mean that North American bidders are more competitive than their European counterparts, but this is a general trend that is not confined to the work of Sonia Delaunay.”
Values for her art may put her paintings out of the reach of beginning collectors, with most prices in the $10,000 to $40,000 range. Even an undated Delaunay watercolor on paper can bring five figures, such as Projet de Tissus (Fabric Project), which sold for €10,000 ($10,835) plus the buyer’s premium at Subastas Segre in May 2019. Her fabric silk designs and multiples and prints are gentler on the wallets of those starting to collect her works.
Regardless, pieces by Sonia Delaunay continue to resonate with audiences whether they are seen in a museum or in the confines of a home. Her art is timeless and just as relevant today as it was in the early 1900s.