At Large  April 6, 2022  Rachel Ozerkevich

What is Orphism? The Modern Art Movement Explained

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Robert Delaunay, Rhythmes, 1934. 

Art critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire first encountered a group of Robert Delaunay’s canvases of swirling, colorful, and largely non-representational shapes in 1912. Apollinaire immediately connected the works to the multidisciplinary Ancient Greek singer and poet Orpheus, around whom developed a Mystery Cult called Orphism. Orphists believed that Orpheus used music to enter the otherwise-inaccessible underworld. Music, according to this understanding, had otherworldly powers, and could be injected into other art forms to enhance their effects.

Apollinaire co-opted the term Orphism to describe how Delaunay, and soon a group of other like-minded artists, borrowed elements from music and science to inject powerful sensations into their paintings. The results helped pave the way for abstract art as we now know it.

An Orphic canvas is characterized by panels of color, often in spheres and other curved forms, strategically brought together to encourage an almost vibrating, lyrical harmony. Apollinaire saw compositions as musical, believing that they transcended any single art form. The critic enthused that Orphism was a “pure” form of art in that it had broken with any semblance of identifiable imagery. Rather, it was an attempt to pictorialize light.

By 1911, many of Delaunay’s peers were deeply enmeshed in Cubism, a highly intellectual pursuit that sought to reimagine space and perception. Orphism seemed to stem from Cubism, in part, because it shared the desire to break down solid objects and challenge human perceptions of time, space, and volume. And yet, this “offshoot” of Cubism specifically placed color and lyricism at center stage.


Frantisek Kupka, Synthesis, 1929. 

Delaunay, with his embrace of vibrant tones, seemed an ideal spearhead. He was joined by the likes of Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, and Frantisek Kupka.

While other Cubist artists struggled to combine their interests in intangible things like motion and time with representational imagery, Delaunay delved deeply into the actual sensation and process of vision. He was less preoccupied with what the human eye sees than in how it sees, and he aimed to give form to the optical structure of vision.

He strove to pictorialize the science happening within the human retina and the systems by which the brain processes color and light, all in an earnest effort to distill developing anatomical science into works of art.

Orphic canvases are full of bright, electric hues and hypnotic spheres made entirely of color. Though Delaunay’s color combinations might seem random, the artists chose compositional arrangements with color theory in mind. He looked to the work of scientists such as Eugène Chevreul, who determined that certain colors, when placed together, elicited harmonious contrasts and optical blending.

Kupka’s Orphic works incorporate more varied geometrical shapes; his spheres seem to extend forward into the viewer’s space, arranged as they are in front of blocky vertical lines and negative space.


Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Rhythme, 1938. 

Delaunay-Terk was perhaps the most experimental of this group of artists. Her practice branched off into set design, fashion and garment design, textile works, book illustration, and print. Much of her work contains vibrant, swirling forms.

Apollinaire was the movement’s champion. Yet, just over twenty years later, prominent New York curator Alfred Barr would claim that Orphism led nowhere. Barr had famously tried to chart what he believed to be the major modern art movements and their clear, linear relations to each other. Orphism, according to Barr, was the only dead-end movement.

Today, art historians take major issue with this reductive mode of thinking. It remains true, however, that Orphism was, and still is, difficult to place in a neat, progressive kind of art history.

Even now, much of Delaunay’s practice is seen as synonymous with Orphism. The artist made a deliberate attempt to distance himself from others working in Cubist modes, and this might explain why he clung so tightly to a method of painting and drawing that seemed to tire so many critics and other artists.

Orphism was a short-lived movement, much like others that were identified at the time. The few artists involved in its exploration and dissemination worked at it only between 1911 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914—a catastrophic series of events that inspired, among many things, a major overhaul of artistic institutions and practices. Still, Delaunay continued to produce works that explored spheres, color, and non-representational themes until his death in 1941.

About the Author

Rachel Ozerkevich

Rachel Ozerkevich holds a PhD in Art History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's an art historian, writer, educator, and researcher currently based in eastern Washington State. Her areas of expertise lie in early illustrated magazines, sports subjects, interdisciplinary arts practices, contemporary indigenous art, and European and Canadian modernism.

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