Sonia Delaunay (1884-1979)

Portrait de Charles de Rochefort

Sonia Delaunay (1884-1979)
Portrait de Charles de Rochefort
oil on canvas
24 x 19½ in. (61 x 49.5 cm.)
Painted in 1908
Estate of the artist.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Sonia Delaunays Welt der Kunst, November 2008-February 2009, pp. 20-21 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Richard Riss has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.

Portrait de Charles de Rochefort is a highly important painting from Sonia Delaunay's first breakthrough years in Paris. One of a series of extraordinarily vibrant and adventurous portraits set against a sequence of brightly colored and richly patterned backgrounds made in 1907-1908, Delaunay's radically embellished portrait is representative of the artist's greatest painterly achievements during her early career.

Born in the Ukraine and growing up both there and in St. Petersburg, Sonia Terk, who was to marry and attain fame alongside her husband Robert Delaunay only a year after Portrait de Charles de Rochefort was painted, first moved to Paris in 1905. It was there that, responding to the pervasive influences of Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, she sought to develop these artists' freer and more intense use of color into a new, bolder and ultimately even autonomous and freeform language.

In touch with other leading avant-garde artists of a like mind at this time, such as fellow Russian émigrés Wassily Kandinsky and Alexej von Jawlensky then based in Munich, Delaunay showed herself to be perhaps the first of these to have moved beyond Matisse and Gauguin by fusing their influence into an extreme exaltation of color with complete flatness. In the present portrait she abolished the chiaroscuro that, as she observed, even Matisse still used, and allowed bold free planes of color an autonomy of their own, thus attaining the richer, more dynamic and expressive effect that would soon be witnessed in Germany in the art of Die Brücke and Der blaue Reiter. This is particularly evident in the planar treatment of the subject's face in the present portrait and the striking contrast of the vivid angles of the nose, mouth and jaw against the rich darkness of the background and the sitter's black jacket.

For Delaunay this significant development was a simple intuitive step that she took, "just for the pleasure of it... Colour excited me. I didn't attempt to analyze what I was doing. These were things that came from inside me" (quoted in H. Duchting, Robert and Sonia Delaunay: The Triumph of Colour, Cologne, 1994). The strength and boldness of Delaunay's palette was--as her husband Robert described--"atavistic" in nature, being essentially rooted in the pure colors of her homeland. "I am attracted by pure colours. Colours from my childhood, from the Ukraine. Memories of peasant weddings in my country, in which the red and green dresses decorated with many ribbons, billowed in dance. Memories of an album of folk costumes brought from Sweden by my uncle" (quoted in Sonia Delaunay: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1980, p. 213). These symbolic resonances are particularly noticeable in another portrait of the same year, Portrait de Tchouiko (fig. 1); here Delaunay combines the perceptual phenomenon employed so effectively in Portrait de Charles de Rochefort--a figure defined by flat planes of color, giving dimension by its stark contrast to a patterned illusionistic background--with the more folksy arabesque pattern, in a composition dominated by the interplay of the two colors of her homeland: red and green.

The subject of the present lot, Charles de Rochefort, was a French film actor and director in the silent era who most notably appeared in the 1923 American epic silent film The Ten Commandments directed by Cecil B. DeMille and many silent films of Max Linder. Little is known about the relationship between de Rochefort and the artist, aside from this fruitful collaboration. Regardless, Portrait de Charles de Rochefort is a vibrant and powerful painting that not only establishes Delaunay as one of the leading pioneers among the international avant-garde, but also anticipates so much of what was to come.

(fig. 1) Sonia Delaunay, Portrait de Tchouiko, 1908; Hamburger Kunsthalle


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