Painted circa 1911-1912, the present work is a study for Robert Delaunay's celebrated monumental masterpiece, La Ville de Paris, 1912 (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre George Pompidou, Paris). Filled with the energy of the modern world and incorporating emblematic architectural structures such as the Eiffel Tower, juxtaposing them against a classical theme, Les trois Grâces, étude pour 'La Ville de Paris' was executed at the vibrant dawn of Modernism, and bursts with the same energy that was to fuel Futurism, Rayonnism and Suprematism. La Ville de Paris is a pivotal painting in Delaunay's oeuvre, in which the artist combined elements of Cubism and abstraction, and made groundbreaking use of light and colour as compositional devices.
Delaunay first exhibited La Ville de Paris at the Salon des Indépendants in March of 1912 prompting his friend and supporter Guillaume Apollinaire to claim that Delaunay had brought about the rebirth of great art, writing in his review of the exhibition, 'Delaunay's painting is definitely the most important picture in the Salon. The City of Paris is more than an artistic manifestation. This painting marks the advent of a conception of art that seemed to have been lost with the great Italian painters. And if it epitomizes all the efforts of the painter who composed it, it also epitomizes all the efforts of modern painting' (quoted in L. Breuing, ed., Apollinaire on Art: Essays and Reviews 1902-1918, Boston, 1972, p. 212).
Many critics have stated that La Ville de Paris was in fact a combination of several themes that Delaunay had been exploring in the years leading to its execution, and this is certainly backed up by the variety of studies and separate works he completed on individual themes within the final composition. The motif of the Three Graces was one that he had tackled as early as 1909, basing his image on a fresco of the same subject from Pompeii. Already in that early, seemingly unfinished sketch, we see a prelude to the cubist treatment with which he would later treat the subject. The present work, however, appears to be an attempt by the artist to bring together all the disparate elements of the composition into a unified whole, working out the spatial relationships between the Graces and the Eiffel Tower that are so crucial to the success of the final painting. Interestingly the rainbow that dominates the composition of the present work and serves as a unifying compositional device is absent from the finished work, suggesting that, as Delaunay subjected the subject to his cubist deconstruction, the curvilinear sweep of the rainbow became pictorially redundant.
Les trois Grâces, étude pour 'La Ville de Paris' dates from an exciting period in which Delaunay was consolidating his position as one of the greatest artists of the day, and one of the most important proponents of Cubism, albeit his own unique cubist style, which retains a visual accessibility that many other cubist artists had forfeited. At the same time, he was rigourous in the visual analysis that led him logically to his fractured multi-faceted depictions. This contrasting combination prompted Apollinaire to write of Delaunay's art: 'Intellectual in the extreme, it is by consequence realistic in the extreme and its purity even exerts that marvellous plastic Trinity without which there is no modern art' (Apollinaire, quoted in R. Delaunay, Du Cubisme à l'art abstrait, P. Francastel, ed., Paris, 1957, p. 162).
This balance between intellectualism and realism is reflected in Delaunay's focus on light and rhythm. Just as light is integral to sight, so Delaunay believed that it was light that created art. Les trois Grâces, étude pour 'La Ville de Paris' perfectly displays Delaunay's concerns with this balance; much of the colour and line in the painting is set starkly against the artist's bright ground, creating a shimmering luminescence that complements the rhythms of the subject. Infused with light, colour and poetry, the painting displays the same qualities that would lead to the development of Delaunay's abstract art a short time after this picture was executed. Indeed, these imminent developments are already revealed in the rhythmic forms and fields that make up the present painting and which are already breaking up his figuration. Apollinaire would come to dub this later work 'Orphism' and Delaunay himself would later make a statement about his abstract art that is equally applicable to this painting: 'Art, like Nature, is rhythmic, which is to say Eternal' (R. Delaunay, op. cit., P. Francastel, ed., 1957, p. 148).