"Direct observation of the luminous essence of nature is for me indispensable."
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Robert Delaunay Signature
"Line is limitation. Color gives depth - not perspectival, not successive, but simultaneous depth - as well as form and movement."
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Robert Delaunay Signature
"As long as art does not free itself from the object, it remains a matter of description, of literature...condemns itself to the slavery of imitation. And this is also the case if it emphasizes the illumination of an object or the luminous relations among several objects but does not raise the light itself to the level of an independent presentation."
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Robert Delaunay Signature
"Color is the skin of the world."
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Sonia Delaunay Signature
"Color was the hue of number."
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Sonia Delaunay Signature
"Simultaneity in light is harmony, the rhythm of colors which creates the Vision of Man."
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Robert Delaunay Signature
"I can find something between sight and hearing and I can produce a fugue in colors as Bach has done in music." -"
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František Kupka
"'Simultaneousness' is a technique. Simultaneous contrast is the most up-to-date technique in this field. Simultaneous contrast is visible depth - Reality, Form, construction, representation. Depth is the new inspiration. We live in depth, we travel in depth. I'm in it. The senses are in it. And the mind is too."
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Robert Delaunay Signature
"Light in nature creates movement in color. The movement is provided by the relationships of uneven measures, of colors contrasts among themselves and constitutes Reality."
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Robert Delaunay Signature
"The eye is the most refined of our senses, the one which communicates most directly with our mind, our consciousness."
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Robert Delaunay Signature
"Painting is by nature a luminous language."
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Robert Delaunay Signature
"Colors should not be used to reproduce the color of an object but on a self-contained basis."
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Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné
"Orphism is not a sudden invention; it is the result of a slow and logical evolution from impressionism, divisionism, fauvism, and cubism."
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Art Critic Guillame Apollinaire
"Contrast is love."
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Blaise Cendrars

Summary of Orphism

Breaking free from Cubism to embrace brilliant color and representations of time and experience, Orphism introduced non-objective painting to French audiences. As one of the earliest styles to approach complete abstraction, Orphism brought together contemporary theories of philosophy and color to create works that immersed the viewer in dynamic expanses of rhythmic form and chromatic scales. Less than a long-term, cohesive movement, however, Orphism was a loosely bound group of artists with the common goals of moving beyond concrete reality to present a flowing vision of simultaneity and flux. It flowered briefly in the years leading to World War I, before fading with the rise of the war in 1914.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • From its inception, Orphism was interdisciplinary, integrating Henri Bergson's philosophical theories about time and experience with poetic experiments with symbolism and abstraction. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined the name, after the Greek god Orpheus who was renowned for his musical talents. Indeed, the artists of Orphism aspired to the levels of abstraction possible in music, where sounds were able to evoke emotions and experiences despite being disconnected from the real world. The Orphists arranged color harmonies after the model of musical scales and chords.
  • Orphism was based in Cubism, but with a new emphasis on color, influenced by the Neo-Impressionists and the Symbolists. Unlike the monochromatic canvases of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the Orphists used prismatic hues to suggest movement and energy. In emphasizing the sensory and intuitive, they provided radical new possibilities for the abstractions of Cubist ideas and created another path to the progression of modernism.
  • Although no one is certain who created the first non-objective painting, the Orphists have a claim to this distinction. Between 1910 and 1912, several artists painted abstract canvases, including the Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky and the American Arthur Dove, although František Kupka, Sonia Delaunay, and Robert Delaunay all created works that are potential contenders. The competition is complicated: Sonia's abstract blanket design, which inspired her and her husband to paint abstract compositions, was not initially considered a work of fine art and both Robert Delaunay and Kupka painted designs based on subjects, making them not quite non-objective. Still, their inclusion among this elite group testifies to the importance of their avant-garde experiments.
  • Believing that the color harmonies and radiating forms of Orphism represented universal energies, the artists moved beyond oil painting to experiment with more popular outlets. From poetry to design, some of the movement's most visible products were Sonia Delaunay's forays into fashion and décor. In fact, the movement's earliest and most daring abstract work was a textile created by Sonia, which then inspired painterly abstractions by her husband, Robert. Their broad definition of artistic production helped cultivate the idea of art as a total environment and further popularized collaborations between artists and industry.

Overview of Orphism

Orphism Image

Around 1911, the theory and practice of Robert and Sonia Delaunay began to converge with the experimental work of František Kupka, giving birth to Orphism. The notion of Orphism was popularized by Robert Delaunay's influential article of 1912, "La lumière" and Guillaume Apollinaire's description of "Orphic Cubism" in his 1913 writings on modern art. The collaborations between Robert and Sonia Delaunay broadened the range of Orphism beyond the art world. The Delaunays would become most closely associated with Orphism, even though Kupka received some of the earliest acclaim for his advocacy of pure painting, abstract and free from any need to be descriptive. This non-objective ideal broke with even the most radical painters of the time, who abstracted from nature, but still worked from identifiable sources.

Key Artists

  • Robert Delaunay was a French avant-garde painter. Early in his career he was associated with the Expressionist group The Blue Rider along with Kandinsky and Klee. Delaunay's singular style is referred to as Orphism; an approach that combines visual elements of Cubism, Expressionism and figurative abstraction.
  • Sonia Delauney with her husband Robert Delauney, began the Orphism art movement during the pre-War period, characterized by its use of strong color palettes and geometric, abstract forms. Delaunay's work also popularly incorporated the use of fabric, furniture design and clothing.
  • Franz Marc was a German painter and printmaker, and one of the pioneers of German Expressionism. Along with August Macke and Kandinksy, Marc founded The Blue Rider artist group. A student of Futurism and Cubism, Marc was a master of color and depth, and a major influence on mid-twentieth-century abstractionists.
  • A co-founder of the Orphism Movement, Frantisek Kupka's works are investigations into theories on motion, color, and the relationship between music and painting. He is regarded as one of the first developers of abstraction.
  • The artist, curator, Guggenheim advisor, museum director, and collector Hilla Rebay advanced modern and abstract in the United States.

Do Not Miss

  • Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
  • Synchromism was an American art movement started in the avant-garde explosion in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. The movement aimed to create color "symphonies" by particular arrangements of shapes and hues. Based on musical principles, the resulting paintings were often abstract and dynamic.
  • Rayonism, sometimes refered to as rayism, was an abstract style of painting developed by Russian artists Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. The term was derived from the use of dynamic rays of contrasting color that represented lines of reflected light.

Important Art and Artists of Orphism

The City of Paris (La Ville de Paris) (1910-12)

Artist: Robert Delaunay

Delaunay considered this monumental painting (13 x 9') a turning point in his work, and suggested a larger, metaphysical continuum of time and experience. Intended to be a visual manifesto, he incorporated elements of modern fragmentation while juxtaposing them with classical allusion and historical scale. The work combines fragmentary views of Paris and elements of its history, beginning on the left with the Quai du Louvre, representing ancient Paris, and, ending on the right with the Eiffel Tower, symbolizing the city's modernity. Reflecting Orphism's emphasis on depicting modernity's simultaneous states of being, this work conveys the fleeting sensations of modern life in Paris. He had first explored imagery of the Eiffel Tower in 1909, and it was to become a central symbol in his work. Delaunay also added the symbolic layer of the three women; their fragmented figures represent Paris of the past, the present, and the future while alluding to the Greek myth of the Judgment of Paris. The women were partly inspired by a wall painting of the three graces from ancient Pompeii.

The large scale and the use of allegorical figures show Delaunay intended the work as a kind of tour de force, proclaiming his departure from Cubism with its exhibition at the 1912 Salon des Indépendants. The brilliant Orphist color palette, based in contrasting primary and secondary hues, creates a sense of vibrant movement and simultaneous sensation. Delaunay believed this offers another level of significance, beyond concrete reality. As Apollinaire wrote, "more than an artistic manifestation. This picture marks the advent of a conception of art lost perhaps since the great Italian painters...he sums up, without any scientific pomp, the entire effort of modern painting."

Couverture de Berceau (1911)

Artist: Sonia Delaunay

The patchwork blanket, made of 70 triangular and rectangular pieces of cloth, is arranged in contrasting patterns along a roughly designed grid, creating a softly harmonious but dynamic effect. The dominant horizontal and vertical lines are counteracted by triangular patches, which introduce subtle diagonals to provide a sense of vibrant movement. The arrangement of black rectangles, green triangles, and small vertical rectangles of yellow in the center of the work create a sense of depth, as if looking into deeper space, yet the textile remains an insistently flat surface, creating visual tension between illusion and reality.

Although this work would serve as a foundation for Orphism, its origins were relatively humble. Sonia Delaunay explained that, "About 1911 I had the idea of making for my son, who had just been born, a blanket composed of bits of fabric like those I had seen in the houses of Russian peasants. When it was finished, the arrangement of the pieces of material seemed to me to evoke cubist conceptions and we then tried to apply the same process to other objects and paintings." The quilt's status as a domestic object and not fine art made it more possible to experiment with pure abstraction; the stakes were lower and it was acceptable to pursue patterns and colors in a purely decorative fashion.

This early Orphist work informed the movement's theory and practice, as it inspired her husband's series of Simultaneous Windows. In truth, Sonia's work is the more advanced: Robert's series retained some figurative elements, while the blanket is totally an abstract arrangement of colors, shapes, and lines. Despite its utilitarian origins, once her son had outgrown the quilt, Sonia framed it and exhibited it among her earliest abstract tableaux.

The Rhythm (Adam and Eve) (1910-13)

Artist: Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné

This work, depicting Adam and Eve in Paradise, marked the young Baranoff-Rossiné's debut as a modernist and demonstrates his early adoption of Orphist ideas. Like Delaunay, he intended the painting to make a grand demonstration of the meaningful potential of harnessing color and form to make meaning; he incorporated traditional symbolism, quoting Old Master works, to underscore its ancestry. Indeed, Adam's posture and profile alludes to Albrecht Dürer's 1504 Adam and Eve, but, unlike Dürer, the artist portrays Eve as a supine and seductive being, accompanied by a cat which symbolizes sexuality, drawing from more recent fin-de-siècle iconography of the femme fatale (Adam is attended by a faithful hound). A solar disk swirls at the center of the canvas, and six rings radiate around it, representing the Biblical six days of creation. The vegetation growing out of the third ring creates a sense of vibrant growth, in which can be seen fragmentary and amorphous animals.

Baranoff-Rossiné's s use of the allegorical and the cosmological was influenced by Delaunay's allegorical figures in La Ville de Paris, as his solar disk alludes to his mentor's emblem. Nevertheless, the artist uses the allegorical with a different intent, creating not the sensation of modern reality, but a symbolic paradise, a world newly generated out of the rhythm of light, where the dynamic solar disk represents the eye of God.

In 1910 the young Ukrainian artist moved to Paris where he met the Delaunays, who became his mentors at the moment when they were developing the theory and practice of Orphism. Showing his interest in Orphic color and dynamic structures, this painting debuted at the 1913 Salon des Indépendants, the height of the movement's popularity.

Useful Resources on Orphism

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Archino

"Orphism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Archino
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First published on 11 Sep 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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