Our conventional ideas of the shape of an artistic career have been modeled on the lives and legends of a fairly small number of male artists. You know the story: the precociously manifest talent; the youthful breakthrough into unfathomable originality; the relentless pursuit of a personal vision, even at the cost of great suffering—not only by the artist himself, but by his family and friends; and then either an early burnout (retrospectively glorious) or the slow attainment of an Olympian transcendence that is also a kind of hermetic isolation.

Few artists have really lived that life, and women artists even less. Take Sonia Delaunay, the subject of an eye-opening retrospective at London’s Tate Modern (organized in collaboration with the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where the show originated last October). Not only was Delaunay something of a late bloomer in a culture that values youthful genius; she was also married to a fellow painter to whom she always accorded creative priority, even though his early works were his best. She stopped painting for two decades to become a designer of clothing and textiles—and as the art historian Linda Nochlin has pointed out, “for a woman artist to ‘return’ as it were to her traditional role in the minor arts, generally less conducive to fame and fortune than a career in painting or sculpture,” has often been “viewed as a retrograde step.”

What’s remarkable about the Tate’s Delaunay retrospective, on view through August 9, is that it finally makes it possible to begin seeing Delaunay’s art as a whole, despite her transformation from painter to designer and back again—not to mention the sudden reversals of fortune that have tempted some biographers to novelistic excess. (No less indispensable than the show is its catalog, the best book in English about Delaunay since Arthur A. Cohen’s monograph of 1975, despite its unfortunate lack of an overall biographical narrative.)

Delaunay began life in 1885 as Sara Stern, the daughter of a penniless Jewish laborer in Odessa, or perhaps in the town of Gradizhsk (Hrdzy’k); the sources are extremely hazy. But there was a maternal uncle, childless, who’d made good as a lawyer, and when the girl was about 5—again, the details are vague—she became his de facto adoptee. She began a new life in St. Petersburg as Sonia Terk, part of a family about as affluent (and as assimilated) as a Jewish family could be in late-19th-century Russia. Her new life: tutors and governesses, vacations in Europe, a deepening intimacy with art, music, philosophy, and literature in many languages.

Sonia Terk must have been strong-willed from the start. As cultivated as her adoptive parents may have been, they must have been skeptical about her traveling abroad on her own to pursue the study of art. Yet at the age of 18, she left Russia for the art academy in Karlsruhe, Germany. Her instinct for falling in with the right people took hold when she was befriended by the rising young composer Arnold Schoenberg and his wife. But after a couple of years, Paris beckoned. The timing was perfect. It was 1905, the year of the Fauves, and the young painter got the point: freedom with color, color as freedom. Talking it through with her circle of young Russian women artists-to-be, she and they felt they could go still further; Matisse, they suspected, was still “too bourgeois.”

Well, that was youthful bravado talking. The earliest of her works on view at the Tate, portraits dating from 1907 and 1908, show that despite her flair for almost brutally dissonant chromatic juxtapositions, she hadn’t yet understood how to integrate them, whether through drawing (her forms are heavily outlined) or through color relations alone; the more daring the paintings, the clumsier and more unresolved they seem. And yet the Young Finnish Girl of 1907 and the big Yellow Nude of 1908 stick in the mind even though one searches them, not quite successfully, for portents of what’s to come. Her first public exhibition, in 1907, found her in the best of company—alongside the Fauves André Derain and Raoul Dufy; the soon-to-be Cubists Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Metzinger; and “the prince of Montparnasse,” Jules Pascin—in the gallery of Wilhelm Uhde, one of the sharpest eyes in Paris.

Uhde would later recall of Sonia Terk that “she was intelligent, generous, open-hearted. She knew about pictures and was herself a gifted painter. She, too, wished to have a harmonious and orderly existence and a serious relationship of the mind. We therefore agreed to give our camaraderie the exterior appearance of marriage.” It was the perfect arrangement for a confirmed homosexual (the household was filled out by Uhde’s butler, who seems also to have been his lover) and an intellectually adventurous but perhaps sexually timid young woman who would only come into her inheritance upon marriage. But as Uhde’s words suggest, it was more than a marriage of convenience; it was a staunch alliance based on a sympathy that would continue long after Sonia became pregnant by a friend of Uhde’s, the painter Robert Delaunay. A quick divorce and equally quick remarriage ensued.

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Sonia Terk, formerly Sara Stern, was now Sonia Delaunay, sometimes Sonia Delaunay-Terk. She took more than a name from her new husband. The ne’er-do-well son of a wealthy single mother, he had found his passion in the realm of color. She imbibed his passion as she had Uhde’s, because she knew it was cognate with her own: “We breathed painting like others lived in alcohol or crime,” as a sort of shared conspiracy. Robert’s approach to color was theoretically grounded. Its roots were as much in Michel Eugène Chevreul’s scientific studies as in Impressionism and the neo-Impressionism of Seurat and all the others who had already been fascinated by Chevreul’s “law of simultaneous contrasts,” which showed how juxtaposed colors could intensify or weaken each other. But it was from the Cubist dismantling and reconstruction of form that he found a way to give broader order to his chromatic perception of the heady urgencies of modern urban life, as represented above all by the Eiffel Tower, his favorite subject.

Sonia considered herself a Jew only in the most abstract sense, but at least in one way she had followed tradition: by marrying a luftmensch. From the beginning of her marriage, all practical details devolved on her. As she perhaps too poetically put it, “Robert was shooting off rockets in all directions. Back on earth, I gathered the falling sparks. I tended the more intimate and transient fires of everyday life.” It’s probably no coincidence that the Tate show includes no paintings dated in the years immediately following her marriage to Robert in 1910. Not that she wasn’t busy. Aside from looking after their son and keeping the family finances in order, she made outrageous clothes for herself and Robert and produced a patchwork bedcover for the child’s cradle whose irregular scraps of clear color—entirely nonrepresentational—seem in retrospect more the true beginning for her mature art than the portraits and figure studies she’d been doing a few years earlier. The brief hiatus from painting was thus not without positive consequences—just as would be the case for the much longer diversion into the realm of textiles that she would pursue years later.

She was also cultivating some of the best poets of the day, such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars—both foreigners like her. With the Swiss-born Cendrars, she produced one of the paradigmatic works of a brief era when avant-garde artists dwelt in possibility, clear as it was that war was on the way. La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France is a more than six-foot-long accordion-fold book combining Cendrars’s words and (as she signed herself in this instance) Delaunay-Terk’s “simultaneous colors.” Apollinaire called the work “a unique experiment in simultaneity, written in contrasting colors in order to train the eye to read with one glance the whole of a poem, even as an orchestra conductor reads with one glance the notes placed up and down on the bar, even as one reads with a single glance the plastic elements printed on a poster.”

“Simultaneity” here means something much more than Chevreul’s simultaneous contrast of colors, and yet the connection is clear: The book amplifies sensations through contiguity. As Apollinaire understood, Delaunay and Cendrars were orchestrating simultaneous relations between colors and words. But even Delaunay’s most renowned works in oil from the teens—from Le Bal Bullier (1913), the friezelike dance scene that announces her return to painting, to the Grand Flamenco (1915–16)—seem, by comparison with the book, her watercolors, and the patchwork, surprisingly earthbound. The colors, full of dust and shadows, sustain one another only fitfully, and so the rhythms of the repeated and varied forms don’t take flight.

World War I broke out while the Delaunays were vacationing in the Basque country. They elected to sit out the conflict in Spain and Portugal. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution put an end to remittances from the Terks. The couple, who cheered on the upheaval that impoverished them, had never earned anything from their art; and because Robert could not be expected to do anything practical, Sonia took it upon herself to go to work. The “intimate and transient fires of everyday life” would have to be rekindled for the market. She opened her first fashion and design shop, Casa Sonia, in Madrid in 1918. Later, after the couple returned to Paris—where there were new poets to cultivate, among them Tristan Tzara and René Crevel—she would found a company called Ateliers Simultanés, or Simultaneous Studios, to produce her textiles and the clothes made from them; she was a roaring success, and on an international level, as seen at the Tate by the embroidered woolen coat she made for Gloria Swanson around 1925. To her, it was “noble work, as much as a still-life or a self-portrait.”

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This, I suppose, is the moment to confess that I’ve always had a problem with fashion exhibitions. The sticking point is that I’ve never been able to get interested in seeing dresses hanging on mannequins. It’s like going to see an exhibition of painters’ palettes—not uninformative, but not the real thing either. What you really want to see from the paint is not how it looks on the palette, but how it looks on the canvas, and what you want to see from the dress is not how it looks on a dressmaker’s dummy, but how it looks on a living, breathing, moving human being. But for all her success as a designer, Delaunay must have always conceived her garments with the eye of a painter, because in this case I found it completely satisfying to see a jacket, a scarf, a coat, a hat, a bathing suit just as they are, unanimated by a living wearer. Delaunay was entirely justified when she said of her designs that “they were and remain ranges of colors, and based on the purified conception of our painting…. My research was purely pictorial and in plastic terms a discovery which served both of us in our painting.”

Photographs and a film of women modeling Delaunay’s clothes show that they were eminently wearable and flattering; these were not conceptual proposals for garments appropriate only to some alternative reality, like the “illusionistic sarcastic sonorous noisy deadly explosive outfits…equipped with springs, strings, photographic lenses, electric currents, reflectors, perfumed fountains, fireworks, a thousand gadgets capable of playing the dirtiest tricks and pulling the most disconcerting pranks on clumsy suitors and sentimental lovers” that the Italian Futurists had called for (without, of course, being able to make them). Quite simply, Delaunay’s clothes are somehow simultaneously autonomous works of art with their own internal visual rhythms and patterns, and appealing garments that seem to fall in easily with the movements and postures of real women in everyday urban life.

Among the great pleasures of the Tate exhibition is the large quantity of designs for fabric patterns, painted in gouache on paper and dating from the 1930s, when Delaunay had scaled down her fashion business following the great crash but continued to thrive as a textile designer. Although some of these designs employ relatively naturalistic leaf and flower motifs, many of them are pure abstractions, completely enjoyable as self-contained works in which the expansiveness of the repeated pattern maintains a taut counterpoint with the sense of formal containment promoted by the alignment of rectilinear geometrical units with the edges of the pictorial field. And the colors are so much fresher and clearer than in her paintings of the teens—pure juxtapositions without the grayish admixtures that she’d previously used to smooth over potential clashes and contrasts among hues.

During the two decades in which she hardly touched a canvas, Delaunay never doubted that she was still an artist, nor did she doubt that art had a public function. “The great revolutionary tendencies of art today are the tendencies toward order,” she declared in 1932, “the reconstruction of a new world: one that is ordered, clear, healthy, generous, optimistic and dynamic.” These were brave words considering the reactionary tendencies and centrifugal energies already rumbling not very far under the surface throughout Europe. Her return to painting would be on an appropriately public scale. When Léon Blum’s Popular Front government called for an international exposition in Paris in 1937, the Delaunays were asked to produce large-scale mural decorations promoting the wonders of progress. Sonia’s three vast canvases, each some 23 feet long and nearly 10 feet high, celebrate aeronautics through abstracted representations of an engine, a propeller, and a pilot’s dashboard. Their colors, rendered in tempera with its characteristic dry surface, are far closer to the limpidity of her gouache designs for textiles than to the heaviness of her wartime oil paintings.

The forced optimism of 1937 would be short-lived. War was just two years away; for Sonia, it became a time when survival as a Jew in occupied France (and as a woman on her own after Robert succumbed to cancer in 1941) was the paramount concern. Her war years were mostly unproductive, aside from some collaborations with Hans and Sophie Taeuber Arp and Alberto Magnelli, done to pass the time when they were all lying low in Grasse, the perfume capital just uphill from Cannes, around 1942. And once the war was over, Delaunay had other things in mind than recommencing her career: Ever devoted, her first task was to ensure the future of Robert’s work, in order to establish his reputation as one of the pioneers of abstraction. There were also Tzara’s repeated proposals of marriage to fend off. Only after she felt that her husband’s work—part of “a totality for which we both lived”—had been properly placed was she ready to think of her own. In 1953, nearing 70, she finally had a one-person show.

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Delaunay’s paintings from the 1950s and ’60s constitute one of the great late blossomings in modern art, nearly comparable to Matisse’s great old-age transformation, when he began working with paper cutouts, though far less widely known. (The exhibition includes nothing dated after 1970, and it’s unclear whether this lacuna constitutes a judgment that the work she produced from then until her death in 1979 was weaker or less significant, or reflects a notable decrease in productivity as she reached her late 80s and 90s.) These paintings represent a culmination of all that Sonia and Robert had worked toward, and they would not have been possible, I suspect, had it not been for the two decades that she devoted to the ostensibly humbler art of textile and fashion design. It’s notable that her late works on paper are principally painted in gouache, just like the textile designs of the 1930s—a material she had hardly used earlier on. But she’d now taught herself to handle oil paint with similar clarity and freshness. And she added something new: an ability to use black in a manner that paradoxically lets it interact with other colors, making it feel luminous while enhancing the other hues. Presumably it was from Matisse that she had learned this lesson, so rarely understood by other painters, that black is “also a light.” But Delaunay’s black is her own, and it gives her late works—often with generic titles such as Rythme coloré—a sense of depth that lends gravitas to their light-footed dancing colors.

In an essay for the Tate’s exhibition, Griselda Pollock notes scornfully that “Delaunay was only welcomed back into the category of high art once she had returned exclusively to painting that alone functions as the legitimate site of art tout court,” which she sees as evidence of a “lack of modernist consciousness with regard to transgressing boundaries between forms of art as well as art and the everyday.” Probably so, but if Delaunay’s ultimate accomplishment was her success in transferring her pictorial genius to the “minor arts” of daily adornment, does that mean her postwar rededication to painting was a retreat to conventions she herself had made outmoded? The evidence of my eyes tells me no. If, as Pollock says, “she had always done exactly what she wanted and what she felt was necessary,” that claim applies straight through to the end, and it means that the culmination of her art in painting—however great and unprecedented her very distinct work of the 1920s and ’30s—was indispensable. We still have to come to terms with it.