Jean-Louis Delaunay and Richard Riss have confirmed the authenticity of this work.
“All the poetry of modern life is in his art.”
Thus Delaunay concluded a letter, having cast himself in the third person, to his friend Nicolas Minsky, begun in 1912, but completed and sent in 1917. “The art of R.D. – from a modernism that is no longer destructive but constructive, spontaneous and precise, bears visions of the new life: skies filled with cities, blimps, towers, airplanes” (A.A. Cohen, ed., The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, New York, 1978, p. 69). Delaunay also took notice of the Parisian woman, whose stylish, stately, and dynamic qualities reflected her modish environment. He celebrated this contemporary muse in the personae of the Three Graces, as emblematic of the city itself, in the monumental cubist composition La ville de Paris, 1910-1912 (Habasque, no. 100), exhibited to acclaim at the 1912 Paris Salon des Indépendants.
Only a year later, Delaunay abandoned what he had described as the “cut-up and shattered” forms of La ville de Paris (ibid., p. 14), to embark on a daring, uniquely innovative sequence of pictures which warrant his achievement as one of the leading transformative creators in the art of his time. He sought to forge a synthesis of pure color and modern elements, in which “the surface of the picture is living and simultaneous...a unity of rhythms” (ibid.). When he next depicted the modern woman of Paris, in La femme à l’ombrelle, Delaunay dispensed with nearly all descriptive detail, and through means of color alone, transfigured her into a visionary essence of this subject, the armature from which an effusion of color radiates outward on all sides, like electromagnetic waves, into her environment. Here Delaunay articulated an absolute and completely integrated harmony of all pictorial elements–color and form, figure and ground, stasis and dynamism–in a painting that hovers at the very brink of abstraction.
Delaunay, in fact, painted La femme à l’ombrelle in the same year, 1913, that he created his pioneering, definitive abstract work of art, an unprecedented expression of pure painting–Le premier disque (1re peinture inobjective) (Habasque, no. 113). Today widely regarded as the very first abstract painting, Le premier disque is nothing other than the simultaneous contrast of colors rendered within a series of concentrically circular bands; the composition is deliberately and resolutely non-descriptive and non-referential. La femme à l’ombrelle preceded the completion of Le premier disque, by a few months, perhaps even only weeks.
At this stage, however, in the movement toward pure, non-representational painting, there is still a subject: La belle parisienne. “Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element,” the poet Charles Baudelaire declared, “and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions” (J. Mayne, ed., Baudelaire: The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, New York, 1995, p. 3). For Baudelaire, the wonders of the modern city and the remarkable variety of its denizens, especially the women, should constitute the subjects of the artist, who must be fully engaged in the here and now. There is no one among the great moderns who did not heed this advice. The artist must always, moreover, pursue his muse. Delaunay evoked his Parisienne in both her Baudelairean guises: as the eternal feminine, and in her fashionable, contemporary aspect.
As a direct influence on his painting during this period, Delaunay cited the poems of his friend Blaise Cendrars, who wrote in “Contrasts,” dated October 1913: “The windows of my poetry are wide open onto the boulevards...Everything is splashes of color. And the woman’s hats going by are like comets in the burning evening” (trans. Ron Padgett). Delaunay’s Parisienne is surely his wife, the Russian-born artist and fashion designer Sonia Terk, en promenade, perhaps against the backdrop of the large reflecting pool in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Having admired La ville de Paris at the Salon in the spring of 1912, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire observed Delaunay at work on his ensuing Fenêtres series, in which the artist painted the very light itself streaming through his studio window, as if passing through a prism, separating into diaphanous films of radiant color. “Delaunay silently invented an art of pure color,” Apollinaire wrote in Les Temps, 14 October 1912. “We are evolving toward an entirely new art that will be to painting...what music is to poetry. It will be an art of pure painting” (L.C. Breunig, ed., Apollinaire on Art, Boston, 2001, p. 261).
During 1913 Delaunay painted solar and lunar motifs in interwoven curvilinear forms, initiating his époque circulaire. “Simultaneous contrast is the only basis of pure expression in painting today,” Delaunay wrote in On the Construction of Reality in Pure Painting, 1912, notes that he gave to Apollinaire for publication in one of the writer’s critiques. “Simultaneous contrast ensures the dynamism of colors and their construction in the painting; it is the most powerful means to express reality...the only reality one can construct though painting” (ibid., p. 264).
From the primordial, celestial symbolism of the Formes circulaires, sol and lune, Delaunay plunged headlong into the uncharted waters of abstract, non-representational painting, and later in 1913 completed Le premier disque. “I tackled the problem of the very essence of painting,” he later recalled. “I dealt with the technique of color. I made my experiments with the Disque simultané. This earliest disc was a painted canvas where colors opposing each other had no reference to anything visible... This is the cosmic, visual, positive—and real—poem...the birth of our splendid era” (A.A. Cohen, ed., op. cit., 1978, pp. 144 and 145).
As the most radical advocate of pure painting in Paris, Delaunay attracted the interest of like-minded artists in the Munich-based Blaue Reiter group. Kandinsky had shown Delaunay’s paintings at the first Blaue Reiter group exhibition in December 1911 and purchased one for himself. Klee visited Delaunay in April 1912 and agreed to translate into German the latter’s poem-like article Lumière (“Light”), which appeared in the January 1913 issue of Herwarth Walden’s Berlin gallery journal Der Sturm. Macke and Marc also met with Delaunay in Paris during 1912, and subsequently corresponded with him. Having seen Delaunay’s new paintings in the March 1913 Salon des Indépendants, Walden visited the artist to make arrangements for him to send a sizable contingent of works to Berlin for the dealer’s Erste deutscher Herbstsalon, scheduled to open on 20 September.
Delaunay exhibited La femme à l’ombrelle, together with a group of his recent Contraste simultané, Soleil, and Lune paintings, plus other works, 21 listings in all, at the Herbstsalon, for which Walden had assembled more than 350 works from the leading artists in the international avant-garde. For this occasion Delaunay titled the present painting Parisienne prisme electrique, a more telling description of how he conceived his subject. Also showing at Walden’s Herbstsalon, was Alexej von Jawlensky, another Blaue Reiter painter, with four entries. Greta Garbo owned one of his paintings, dated 1916, also in this sale. Seen side-by-side with La femme à l’ombrelle, the impact on German painters of Delaunay’s method of creating form with color is clearly apparent.
“We are approaching an art of painting that is purely expressive”–Delaunay wrote in 1913–“beyond the limits of all past styles, an art that is becoming plastic, whose sole purpose is to translate human nature with more flexibility as it is inspired toward beauty” (ibid., p. 95).