Robert Delaunay: Orphism and the Birth of Abstract Art

Abstract art is everywhere—from hotel rooms to conference centers to your aunt’s house. Because it’s become so common, we easily forget how revolutionary it once was, and we often overlook the masters who helped develop it.

Robert Delaunay (1885–1941) was one such master. A French painter and contemporary of Pablo Picasso, Delaunay is under-recognized for the role he played in bringing art into the strange and stunning new frontier of the abstract.

To appreciate his achievements, we need to understand his role in the avant garde and his later work that stands out as some of the first masterpieces of abstract art.

What Is Orphism?

Delaunay spent much of his early career as a fellow traveller of the Cubists. But he kept bringing in more Impressionist impulses, using his knowledge of color to make lyrical scenes. By 1912, a new style began to take shape in his studio.

That was the year Delaunay helped form the school of Orphism along with his wife Sonia, František Kupka, and others. It developed out of Cubism, but by the time the movement ended, it revolutionized the art world.

While Cubists broke down real images into pieces and put them back together in striking ways, Orphism pushed further. The Orphists would paint their subjects in striking colors and geometric forms, often going so far that the viewer could not put together what was being depicted

Soon, Orphists dropped subject matter entirely. Delaunay began to explore pure hues and the pleasurable relationships between shapes.

Delaunay and Abstract Art

World War I saw the Delaunays living in Spain and Portugal, with Orphism effectively disbanded. Once they returned to Paris in 1921, Delaunay became influenced by Surrealism and Dadaism. These had temporary effects on his work, but he kept coming back to the abstract.

Late in his life, in 1934, he painted Rhythms, a classic from this time and a clear statement about what he’d learned of his practice up to that point. Rather than exploding with color or action, the shapes seem to grow organically out of themselves, emerging over a serene, off-white background.

The piece is a meditation on color interacting with shape. The result is, as the name implies, rhythmic. It is a rhythm discovered by a painter who dared to push beyond representation and into abstraction, finding a new language.

Delaunay died of cancer in the autumn of 1941, only 56 years old. But in his short life, he helped art take that fateful step into new territory. His works are varied, and they explore so much of the field at the time. But he is best remembered for his accomplishments in abstract art.

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