Robert Delaunay,
La Ville de Paris, 1910-12
Oil on canvas, 108 1.8 x 159 7/8 in.
Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

The subject
The painting is a montage of three emblems of Paris, past and present. [1] The left section represents old Paris with a view of the Quai du Louvre. [2] The central image of the three graces was adapted from a Pompeian wall painting in the Naples museum. [3] The symbolism may refer to the Greek myth of the Judgment of Paris, referencing the city’s classical heritage. [4] The right section shows the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of modernity and the subject of a series of paintings Delaunay made in 1909-1912. [5]

The style
Delaunay considered this painting a turning point in his oeuvre. He was interested in the concept of simultaneity, and had sought this in his earlier works by synthesizing successive visual experiences. [6] La Ville de Paris took this one step further, by juxtaposing allegorical concepts with physical objects and merging the descriptive and the abstract. [7]

The Salon des Indépendents
Delaunay painted La Ville de Paris for the 1912 Salon des Indépendents, where it caused a sensation. [8] The critic Guillaume Apollinaire considered it the most important painting on view when he wrote that it was, “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.” [9]

To the Armory Show . . . almost
Delaunay agreed to send three paintings to the Armory Show, La Ville de Paris and two smaller canvases. But when the work arrived in New York, the American Association of Painters and Sculptors president Arthur B. Davies refused to hang it on the grounds that, at roughly 13 by 9 feet, it was too large. [10] Offended in his belief that the A.A.P.S. had violated their agreement with him, Delaunay requested that his friend, American painter Samuel Halpert, remove all his paintings from the Armory and exhibit them at an alternate venue. [11] Walter Pach refused, maintaining that no injustice had been done but that the canvas was simply too large. [12] Walt Kuhn claimed that the organization had never agreed to hang La Ville de Paris: “We only undertook to hang his two smaller pictures, but he foisted upon us the big one, for which we could find no room. That is all there is to it.” [13]

The conclusion
The two smaller canvases remained on view in New York but were not sent to Chicago or Boston.  Unfortunately La Ville de Paris was damaged on its return journey to Paris. [14] In his anger Delaunay belittled the significance of the exhibition: “I am recognized in Europe, so the action of the American association, after all, is unimportant.” [15]

[1] David Cottington, Cubism and its Histories (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004), 117.

[2] Delaunay had been friends with Henri Rousseau until Rousseau’s death in 1910. Virginia Spate, Orphism: The evolution of non-figurative painting in Paris 1910-1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 183.

[3] Delaunay owned a postcard of the wall painting. See Cottington, 117.

[4] Spate, 185.

[5] Cottington, 117.

[6] Spate, 185.

[7] Ibid., 186.

[8] Delaunay painted the canvas in roughly fifteen days in March 1912. Following his first solo exhibition, at the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris in February – March 1912, Delaunay was left with no new work to submit to that year’s Salon des Indépendents. See Matthew Drutt, “Simultaneous Expressions: Robert Delaunay’s Early Series,” in Visions of Paris: Robert Delaunay’s Series (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. in association with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1998), 36.

[9] Guillaume Apollinaire, “Le Salon des Indépendants, “ L’Intransigeant, March 20, 1912, 2.

[10] “French Artist at Odds with N.Y. Exhibitors,” New-York Tribune. March 2, 1913, 4.

[11] Milton W. Brown, The Story of the Armory Show, 2nd ed. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), 147-48. For more on Delaunay’s communication with Halpert see M. Bernard Dorival, “L’Affaire Delaunay à l’Armory Show d’Apres des Documents Inédits,” Bulletin de la Société de L’Histoire de L’Art Français (January 1977), 323-332.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 149.

[15] Ibid.

Robert Delaunay (1885-1941)

Robert Delaunay was a leading French modernist painter who is most closely associated with Orphism, a movement that linked art and music by means of chromatic colors and geometric shapes. Born in Paris in 1885, Delaunay was apprenticed to a theatre set painter at seventeen but was otherwise self-taught. [1] He explored a number of modernist aesthetics, including Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism, before reaching his mature style. [2]

Around 1907-1908 Delaunay was profoundly influenced by the work of Paul Cézanne and by Cubism, which changed his approach to pictorial construction. [3] From 1909 to 1914 Delaunay completed four series that demonstrated the influence of Cubism in their use of fractured forms: Saint-Séverin (1909-10), The City (1909-11), The Eiffel Tower (1909-12) and The Windows (1912-14). [4]  While Cézanne and the Cubists chose traditional subjects, such as still lifes, nudes and landscapes for their formal experiments, Delaunay took the city itself as his subject. Picturing grand architectural monuments like the church of St. Séverin and the Eiffel Tower, Delaunay eschewed the muted palette then promoted by Picasso and Braque. [5]

Delaunay’s work was well received in Paris, especially by the critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who commended his contribution to the Salon des Indépendents of 1911 and befriended the artist in that year. [6] Delaunay also gained international fame when he was invited to participate in the first exhibition of the German expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, held in Munich from December 1911 to February 1912. [7] He had his first major solo exhibition in 1912 in Paris at the Galerie Barbazanges. The exhibition included forty-six works from his early Impressionist efforts to his Cubist Eiffel Tower series (1909–1912).

Delaunay relocated to Spain at the outbreak of World War I, and to Portugal in 1915. He returned to Paris in 1921, and continued to work in a mostly abstract style until the end of his career.

[1] Matthew Drutt, “Simultaneous Expressions: Robert Delaunay’s Early Series,” in Visions of Paris: Robert Delaunay’s Series (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. in association with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1998), 17.

[2] Ibid., 18-19.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Mark Rosenthal, “Introduction,” in Visions of Paris: Robert Delaunay’s Series (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1998), 11.

[5] Drutt, 20.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid.

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