Portrait de Charles de Rochefort, Sonia Delaunay-Terk (Jewish-French), 1908, oil on canvas 61 x 49.5 cm, private collection
So back in the day, the day being almost all of remembered Western history, the language of art criticism simply disqualified women from being at the fore in artistic innovation. In the early 20th century, one must have been able to channel a savage, instinctual creative force with intellectual profundity to create avant-garde art. Women were considered delicate creatures, and incapable of the necessary depth of thought to make great art (and in some ways too wild to actually make art), so while Fauvism as a movement was making great strides in upturning the visual language, women were only allowed to be associated with the movement, at most fauvettes (as poet Guillaume Appolinaire once called painter Marie Laurencin- it’s a type of song bird). To Émilie Charmy, one critic gave this backhanded praise: “[she] sees like a woman and paints like a man”.
Despite the fact that early 20th century art discourse denigrated or at best ignored the accomplishments and skill of women (can’t say we’re doing too much better today, to be honest), the idea that they weren’t at the fore, kicking ass and taking names, is utter bullshit. Take for instance this work by the young Sonia Delaunay-Terk. “Aw, that’s just a knock off of Matisse or Gauguin” you might say, but look how flattened the pictorial space is- M. de Rochefort blends almost seamlessly with the decorative background- and notice the harmony of color and the rhythm of the interlocking floral design. At this point Sonia has been painting in this way for about a year- Matisse is just starting to produce works with so much attention to the harmonious composition of color and form (though the linked work is formally even more progressive). The expressiveness of de Rochefort’s angular face, emphasized by his triangle of collar and cravate standing out against the dark background, too is progressive, anticipating later work by members of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter. Three years later, this bamf of a woman would go on to co-found Orphic Cubism, a strain of cubism much more abstracted and colorful than most of the other varieties (certainly more so than that of Braque and Picasso), and would continue to make art in a variety of media up until her death in 1979.