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Robert Delaunay had little artistic training beyond an apprenticeship to a stage-set designer. He studied the color theories of the French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul and how the neo-impressionists applied them to painting. He is best known for his Eiffel Tower series of 1909–1913, his Windows of 1912–1914, and his Circular Forms of 1913, which paved the way for Political Drama. His wife, Sonia Delaunay, was a painter and fabric designer whose work informed his use of collage and abstraction from the start.

In 1912, the poet-critic Guillaume Apollinaire praised Delaunay for his painting The Three Graces, in which curving lines and patches of color create a luminous, harmonious pattern. Apollinaire invented the term “Orphic cubism,” a reference to the mythical Greek musician and poet Orpheus, to emphasize the lyricism and musicality of this and other works. Delaunay at first embraced the term but later coined “simultaneism,” which placed more emphasis on color theory, the impact of succession, repetition, and contrast on color perception, and on Henri Bergson’s ideas about the intuitive perception of time and space.

What Delaunay had to say of his tondo First Disk of 1913, a remarkably early example of a fully abstract work without figure or ground, is also relevant to Political Drama: “Colors opposing each other had no reference to anything visible. In fact, the colors, though contrasts, were placed circularly....Reds and blues were opposed in the center...determining the extraordinarily fast vibrations physically perceptible to the naked eye. One day I called this experiment a ‘first punch.’”1 Delaunay carried this idea of visual violence into Political Drama and animated it with a story of actual violence.

The source is a newspaper illustration depicting a murder. The caption to the illustration reads: “Tragic epilogue....The Wife of the French Finance Minister Joseph Cailloux Shoots Dead Gaston Calmette the Editor of Le Figaro.” The illustration, which appeared on the cover of Le Petit Journal, shows the moment after Mme Cailloux fired at Calmette. Although Delaunay stripped most of the details, key elements are still visible: Mme Cailloux, who steps into the room; Calmette, who falls backward; and the sulfurous central circle of the explosion. Interestingly, these are the very elements for which Delaunay used collage.2 A vertical axis dividing the two figures and a horizontal axis connecting them capture the tension of their relationship. Concentricity becomes the sign of violence: a target or the scope of a marksman. At the same time, especially given the swirling patterns behind them, the figures might seem to be engaged in a dance. Delaunay frequented the Bal Bullier dance hall in Paris with his wife from 1912 to 1914.

Delaunay clearly recognized the power of concentrically arranged colored forms, something that would be fully exploited again only some 50 years later in the “target” paintings of Jasper Johns and Kenneth Noland and the concentric stripe paintings of Frank Stella. However, unlike Delaunay in Political Drama, these painters seemed intent on excluding political content. An early photograph reveals that Delaunay’s work originally bore its title as an inscription at the top of the sheet, balancing the artist's name at the bottom. The fact that it was cut off at some point may well testify to an attempt to tilt the work's delicate balance of figuration and abstraction toward the latter.

1. Robert Delaunay’s summaries from discussion groups he held in 1938 and 1939, cited in Arthur A. Cohen, ed., The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, trans. David Shapiro and Arthur A. Cohen (New York, 1978), 142.

2. The man’s jacket and head, the woman’s jacket and muff, and the four quadrants of the central circle, now faded, are all cut-and-pasted paper elements.


lower center: ROBERT DELAUNAY


Sonia Delaunay [1885-1979, wife of the artist] until at least 1956;[1] (Galerie Fricker, Paris); sold 1957 to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph H. Hazen, New York;[2] Joseph H. Hazen Foundation, New York; gift 1971 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Autour du Cubisme, 1905-1927, Galerie Fricker, Paris, no. 3.
R. Delaunay, Stadtisches Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, 1956, no. 39.
Robert Delaunay 1885-1941, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1957, no. 48, repro.
Der Blau Reiter, Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York, 1963, no. 30, repro.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Hazen Collection, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 1966, no. 9.
Robert Delaunay: 1906-1914, de l'Impressionnisme à l'Abstraction, Galerie Sud, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1999, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
Robert Delaunay: 1906-1914 de l'Impressionnisme à l'Abstraction, Galerie Sud, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1999, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, 2000-2001, no. 50, repro.
Marc, Macke und Delaunay. Die Schönheit einer zerbrechenden Welt (1910-1914) [Marc, Macke, and Delaunay. The Beauty of a Fragile World (1910-1914)], Sprengel Museum, Hannover, 2009, no. 29, repro.
Léger 1910-1930: Modern Art and the Metropolis, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Museo Correr, Venice, 2013-2014, no. 24 (English cat.), no. 9 (Italian cat.), repro.
Robert Delaunay and The City of Lights, Kunsthaus Zürich, 2018.


European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 102, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 590, no. 908, color repro.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 125, repro.
Cooper, Harry. The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2009: 8, repro. 9.

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