Robert Delaunay, Eiffel Tower (Tour Eiffel), 1911 (dated 1910 by the artist). Oil on canvas, 79 1/2 × 54 1/2 inches (202 × 138.4 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift 37.463
As it was for many literary and artistic figures of the day, the Eiffel Tower, built for the Exposition Universelle de Paris of 1889, became a symbol of modernity for Robert Delaunay (b. 1885, Paris; d. 1941, Montpellier, France). Delaunay envisioned breaking down boundaries and transforming Europe into a global community, and the Eiffel Tower, in its capacity as a radio tower, embodied international communications. He first painted the tower in celebration of his engagement to fellow artist Sonia Terk in 1909 and would make it the subject of at least thirty works over the next few years and again in the 1920s.
Delaunay’s early treatments of the Eiffel Tower use a limited palette and simple blocklike forms. Centrally located within each of the compositions, the Eiffel Tower assumes the iconic drama of a portrait. The more dynamic representation of Eiffel Tower with Trees signals a shift in the artist’s style. Delaunay showed the tower from several viewpoints, capturing and synthesizing several impressions at once. It is significant that this painting was executed when he was away from Paris, working from memory.
Eiffel Tower with Trees marks the beginning of Delaunay’s self-described “destructive” phase: the solid form in his earlier works becomes fragmented and begins to crumble. Delaunay chose a subject that allowed him to indulge his preference for a sense of vast space, atmosphere, and light, while evoking a sign of modernity and progress. Delaunay’s achievements in style represent a new century and its shift toward urbanization.
Many of Delaunay’s images are views from a window framed by curtains. In Eiffel Tower the buildings bracketing the tower curve like drapery. The vantage point of the window allows the Eiffel Tower series to combine exterior and interior spheres, and recalls a traditional, Romantic notion of the open window.
Before showing the class Robert Delaunay’s painting, project a photograph of the Eiffel Tower. You may even be able to locate vintage photographs online. Robert Delaunay is known to have owned more than one postcard with a photo of the Eiffel Tower that he may have used as a reference for some of his paintings.
Ask students what they notice as well as what they know about the Eiffel Tower. You may want to provide some background information so that the students understand that the Eiffel Tower was not only an impressive architectural structure, but also a symbol of Parisian modernity.
Show: Eiffel Tower, 1911
How is Delaunay’s painting similar or different from the photograph of the Eiffel Tower? What adjectives would you use to describe this work?
Over his lifetime Delaunay concentrated (some say obsessively) on particular places, painting them again and again. If you were to choose a place to explore again and again, where would you choose? Why?
The Web site for the Eiffel Tower contains information on many aspects of the landmark. To understand the importance that the Eiffel Tower held for Parisians at the turn of the 20th century, go to www.toureiffel.paris
When construction of the Eiffel Tower was announced in 1888, Paris went into an uproar. People didn’t want a hideous eyesore like that in their backyard. They called it a “metal monster” and were sure that it would fall on their homes and crush them (Susan Goldman Rubin, There Goes the Neighborhood: Ten Buildings People Love to Hate, [New York: Holiday House, Inc., 2001], p. 17). No one guessed that it would become a beloved symbol of France. But in 1889 when the Paris Exposition opened, it was the Eiffel Tower that attracted the most visitors and soon became an international symbol.
Many groundbreaking ideas were initially criticized, but eventually embraced by the public. Do you know examples of art, literature, architecture, inventions, or ideas that initially prompted public criticism, but eventually won acceptance? What are they? Why do you think they were criticized?
In addition to Robert Delaunay, many other artists, including Marc Chagall (1887–1985), Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau (1844–1910), and Georges Seurat (1859–1891), painted the Eiffel Tower in their different styles. Look at paintings by these artists featuring the Eiffel Tower. How are they similar or different from Delaunay’s approach?
In addition to painters, writers and poets have found the Eiffel Tower and Delaunay’s paintings of it to be inspiring. The last few lines of Blaise Cendrars’s (1887–1961) poem “Tower,” written in August 1913 and dedicated to Robert Delaunay, reads:
You are everything
Subject of my poem
Tower of the world
Tower in motion
Discuss this excerpt and how it relates to both the Eiffel Tower and Delaunay’s paintings of it. Then create a poem for a place that is special to you. To whom will you dedicate your poem? Why?