Robert Delaunay’s painting, ‘Les coureurs à pied’ estimated at £200,000 to £300,000 will be featured at Bonhams Impressionist and Modern Art sale in London on June 24th. A work by his wife, Sonia Delaunay, who is currently the subject of a solo exhibition at the Tate Modern, is also in the sale, estimated at £40,000 to £60,000. The paintings’ similarities show how the couple, a fixture of the avant-garde in Paris, worked together as they sought out radical new ideas about colour and modernity.
Robert and Sonia Delaunay met in Paris in 1909, after Sonia’s first exhibition, and married in 1910. He was from a wealthy French family; she had been born to a Jewish family in Ukraine and was educated by a rich uncle in St Petersburg before studying art in Germany and France. Theirs was also a marriage of styles: it can be hard to distinguish their work from each other in this period.
The couple were on holiday in the Basque country when World War I broke out. They decided to stay in Spain, and the war years were spent in intellectual exploration and creative experimentation. Sonia wrote that Robert ‘forced himself to stare [into the sun] to the point of being nearly blinded…Upon returning to the house, he sought to throw onto the canvas what he saw both with his eyes open and with his eyes closed; all the contrasts registered by his retina’. This effect can be seen in the simplified blocks of pure colour in ‘Les coureurs à pied’. A depiction of a group of runners in motion, it is a patchwork of geometric shapes in contrasting shades. Delaunay centres the red orb of the sun prominently in his composition, surrounded by contrasting blue.
The quality of the light in Spain allowed the couple to ‘first observe Chevreul’s laws in nature’, wrote Sonia. Mid-nineteenth century dye chemist Chevreul documented the phenomenon of ‘simultaneous contrast’, the fact that colours look different depending on which colours they are paired with. The Delaunays adopted his theories in to their style of ‘simultanism’, as seen in Sonia’s work, ‘Projet de couverture pour le catalogue de l’Exposition de Stockholm’, estimated at £40,000 to £60,000. Executed in Portugal in 1916, the painting features circular bands of contrasting colour, a motif that unites the auction’s two Delaunay works.
India Phillips, Bonhams head of Impressionist and Modern Art, said: ‘Works by the Delaunays do not come up at auction often, and it’s rare to have works by both of them in one sale. The value of Sonia’s work in particular has gone up in the last couple of years, something we can expect to continue because of the interest in her work surrounding the Tate Modern exhibition.’
After the war, the couple returned to Paris, poorer (Sonia’s finances had been weakened by the Russian Revolution) but invigorated by the avant-garde scene. They moved to Boulevard Malesherbes, and the address of their apartment is painted on the back of ‘Les coureurs à pied’.
Sonia, who in Spain had set up a firm called Casa Sonia to promote her ‘simultaneous’ clothing and interior design, continued the project on Boulevard Malesherbes. Her application of simultanism to items such as shoes, playing cards and cars, highlighted at the Tate Modern exhibition, was revolutionary in spirit and execution, and cements her and her husband’s position as pioneers in the development of modern art.
The Delaunays’ house, decorated with Sonia’s designs, soon became a hub for Dadaists and Surrealists. A photo from 1924 shows her seated at home in front of a ‘door poem’ in the same style as her ‘Projet de couverture’. It is possible that ‘Les coureurs à pied’ hung nearby, on the colourfully printed ‘simultaneous’ walls.
Also on offer at the auction are works by Picasso, including a drawing ($70,000 to $100,000), a painting (£300,000 to £500,000) and a silver plate (£20,000 to £30,000), as well as experimental landscapes by Max Ernst (£15,000 to £20,000 and £200,000 to £300,000), and a monumental work from late in Miro’s career, featuring industrial paint hurled onto a Masonite support (£600,000 to £800,000).