While Sonia achieved commercial success in her lifetime, her work has typically been defined as craft, a designation that limits her embroidery, dress design, curtains and lampshades to the domestic and feminine, a realm separate, and secondary to the male preserve of high art. Such a separation did not exist within Robert and Sonia’s relationship with each other however, and Whitney Chadwick, writing in Significant Others, a book that reappraises artistic relationships through a series of case studies, describes the Delaunays’ ‘synergistic creativity’. The relationship between Sonia’s abstract quilt design of 1911 and Robert’s paintings, provides an example, and she writes: ‘The quilt’s rich surface of liberated forms and colors is imprinted in Robert Delaunay’s groundbreaking series of paintings titled Windows, begun in 1912.’ Each pursued their own distinct aims, but there is such exchange and sympathy between their work that they are best understood with reference to each other, something that can only be achieved by putting aside traditional ideas about male and female roles, and the rigid categories applied to different types of creative work.
If traditional gender roles have denied Sonia Delaunay her rightful place in art history, the relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera offers a yet more striking example of how female creativity can be pushed into a cul-de-sac, not least through the attitudes expressed by women themselves in relation to the value of their work and roles. While Kahlo has achieved posthumous fame, in her lifetime she was less well known, and to an extent she encouraged the view that she was an amateur to Rivera’s professional, her work preoccupied with the personal and the domestic, his with public works on a monumental scale. Having once professed that her ambition was to have Rivera’s child, Kahlo seemed almost to wilfully subjugate herself, Hayden Herrera observing that while painting was undoubtedly the centre of Rivera’s life, ‘the centre of Kahlo’s life was Rivera’. She painted, she said, because she was ‘bored as hell in bed,’ following the road accident that left her needing multiple operations and with lifelong injuries.