Robert Delaunay was one of the most important artists of the 20th century. A Cubist and Orphist pioneer, he lived much of his life in Paris, as the city surged and became a cultural mecca in the wake of the industrial revolution. Of all the subjects Delaunay painted, the Eiffel Tower was his most enduring – he made a major series of works based on the Eiffel Tower motif from 1909-1912, and returned to the subject in an entirely new way between 1920 and 1930. But what was it about the tower that so captured his imagination, and kept him hooked for so much of his life? We examine the many reasons for Delaunay’s fascination with the great tower of Paris, which he called the “barometer of [his] art.”
A Symbol of Modern Paris
For Robert Delaunay and many modernists, the Eiffel Tower represented the pinnacle of human achievement during the time in which they were living. Designed by Gustave Eiffel and erected in 1889 for the Paris World Fair, the Eiffel Tower was then the tallest building in the world, soaring over the classical city of Paris with its looming latticed design. Not everyone loved the tower – some even lobbied for its removal – but many saw the great tower as a potent symbol of modernity, representing the pinnacle of human achievement so far.
It came to symbolize Parisian innovation as the city stepped forward into the modern age, a proud beacon of progress, aspiration and invention. For Delaunay, the rise of the machine age was something to be celebrated and embraced, as humanity entered a shiny new era. The Eiffel Tower encapsulated Delaunay’s positive emotions about the dawn of the machine age, as his wife and fellow artist Sonia Delaunay wrote, “The Tower was his liberated muse, his Eve of the future … The Tower addresses the universe.”
A Launchpad for Cubist Abstraction
As Robert Delaunay became more adventurous with his art, embracing the rising avant-garde style of Cubism, he explored how the Eiffel Tower could become a launchpad for playing with ideas around fragmentation, dislocation and deconstruction. In his early series of Eiffel Tower paintings, made between 1909 and 1912, Delaunay painted the Eiffel Tower as a series of broken, faceted forms that seem to dissolve into one with the city around it.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
He was tireless in his studies of the tower, as Mark Roesenthal, author of Visions of Paris: Robert Delaunay’s Series, explains: “[he] studied it from above, and below, inside and out, from near and far, by day and by night. He absorbed its every mood, perspective, and light effect.” Over time, Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower paintings became more and more abstract, as the tower form disintegrated, and Delaunay increasingly focused on ideas around structure, form and light.
A Focal Point for Studying Light, Color and Movement
By the 1920s Robert Delaunay had moved away from Cubism and instead embraced the style of Orphism, in which he broke real world subjects into vivid, symphonic patchworks of color and light, that suggest energy, movement and sensation. In his later Eiffel Tower series of 1920 to 1930, Delaunay demonstrates this stylistic shift, with geometric panels of color that interlock together into flat, quilt-like patterns. In many of his later Eiffel Tower paintings Robert Delaunay took a different viewpoint, looking down on the tower from the air, onto the ground below.
He based these paintings on aerial photographs taken by Andre Schelchner and Albert Omer-Decugis in 1909 from the basket of a hot air balloon. While Delaunay was still fascinated by the tower as the symbol of French progress and innovation, he also demonstrated how its structural shape was the ideal framework on which to build a bold and innovative new language of pure abstraction.