French painter, born in Paris in 1885; died at Montpellier in 1941. As painting was the only thing he really cared for, he gave up his studies early, and entered a school of theatrical design. From 1904 on he devoted himself exclusively to art. His work soon got away from traditional techniques. After a holiday spent in Brittany in 1904, he began to paint in large touches of pure colours similar to those of the Fauves. His self-portraits, with dominant reds and greens, are his first results in this direction. In 1906, when Delaunay was under the influence of Scurst, this technique evolved logically towards the breakdown of colour, not by Pointillist methods but by laying it on in large flat patches. In the composition of Le Fiacre he translated the movement by means of a kind of elongated mosaic, but in his Manège de Cochons ( 1906), a theme which he took up again in 1913 and 1922, he affirmed for the first time his preoccupation with circular rhythms. He began to study the theories of Chevreul, and became interested in Cézanne's conception of space. Cubism was just being born. Delaunay scrutinized the works of Braque and Picasso, Negro statues, and the works of art of Egypt and Mesopotamia in the Louvre. He became a great friend of the Douanier Rousseau, from whom, at his request, his mother commissioned The Snake Charmer, now in the Louvre. His large studies of foliage and vegetation, painted from Nature, as well as a small panel with a grey atmosphere in which the first of his Eiffel Towers appears, date from 1908. It would seem as though before undertaking his great chromatic adventure Delaunay was gathering (while reducing them to the extreme) the essential elements of his inspiration. In 1909 he painted the Saint-Séverin series: in it light is broken down into the colours of the spectrum, while the architecture is simplified and tends to give the impression of forms turning in space. These fascinating works foreshadowed The Windows of 1912.
In 1910 Delaunay married Sonia Terk, whom he had known since 1907, and who worked side by side with him. With his two compositions called The City, Delaunay entered Cubism. This time he no longer had recourse to chromatic scales but to the search for values. Working in dominant greys and greens, his touch became finer and more precise. On the other hand, the three large compositions entitled Eiffel Tower ( 1910), now in the Basel Museum, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and a private collection in Germany, represent a remarkable attempt to increase the height and depth of the canvas in a most audacious fashion, solely through construction and colour. Divergent planes are superimposed, the perspectives multiply and swell as in an accordion, space acquires a new thickness and consistency. In the large composition The City of Paris ( Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris), painted in three weeks for the Salon des Indépendants of 1912, three large figures of nude women are developed according to the same principle of superimposition. In this major work Delaunay again takes up his prismatic method of composition, though in a more systematic manner, one part of the picture being dominated by a red and yellow light, the other by blue and violet shadow. Writing of it, Apollinaire said: 'It is the most important picture in the Salon'.
This work marks the beginning of what is called Delaunay's constructive period, as opposed to the preceding, so-called destructive period. Setting out to find something which would not be torn, jagged or dramatic, Delaunay composed his Windows. From then on he gave up all images drawn from reality, he abolished objects 'that come to break and corrupt the coloured work'. Apollinaire fully appreciated the import of this transition from the representational to the non-representational: he invented the word Orphism to designate all those colourful manifestations which brought a ray of hope into the rigid and cold monotony of Cubism. Delaunay has been accused of having returned to Impressionism and become a decorative painter. In reality, a new art was created, which set forth the formal representation of space and movement.
After Simultaneous Prismatic Windows, Delaunay freed himself altogether, and reached pure painting in The Discs and Cosmic Circular Forms, all dated 1912. Modestly, he did not consider his research -- so important for the birth of abstract art -- as culmination but, rather, as a necessary transition. 'We are at the ABC of the new painting', he used to say. However, in Homage to Blériot ( 1914), even though his abstract research is predominant, Delaunay found again a certain meaning in representation. The theoretical importance of his discoveries, the shock power of his coloured universe, brought him considerable prestige. His influence extended far beyond Paris. A great friendship sprang up between him and the two young German artists Franz Marc and August Macke. Kandinsky invited him to the two Blaue Reiter exhibitions. Klee translated one of his articles. Apollinaire's lecture at the Delaunay exhibition in Berlin, at the Der Sturm Gallery in 1913, made a tremendous impression.
During the 1914-1918 war Delaunay spent a long time in Spain and Portugal. In his Portuguese still lifes there is some return to the use of subjects, and a predominance of rounded forms. After the war he went back to his old themes: riding schools, runners. The Eiffel Tower continued to arouse his amazement. In 1925 he painted his large City of Paris for the Mallet-Stevens Pavilion at the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris. Returning to his Discs of 1914, he amplified them in his Unending Rhythms and Coloured Rhythms. He discovered new cadences and expressed them with an ever-renewed joy and youthfulness. The Paris International Exhibition in 1937 gave him the opportunity of realizing his greatest ambition. After two years of intensive preparation, he executed, in a month and a half, ten enormous bas-reliefs in colour for the Hall of Railroads and a gigantic Rhythms about a thousand square yards in size for the Hall of the Air, works which, with their enormous dimensions, represent one of the most imposing efforts in modern decoration. Colour had become the subject, and Delaunay achieved abstraction in the fullest sense of the term. In 1938, gravely ill, he painted his last Rhythms, and finished writing about his research. These writings are still unpublished. In 1940, fleeing from the German invasion, he took refuge in Auvergne, then in Mougins. He died in Montpellier on October 25th, 1941.