Sarah Ilinitchna Stern was born in 1885 in Gradizhske in the Ukraine. At a young age she moved to St. Petersburg where she was cared for by her mother's brother Henri Terk. Henri, a successful and affluent Jewish lawyer, and his wife Anna wanted to adopt her but her mother would not allow it. Finally in 1890 she was adopted by the Terkse. She assumed the name Sonia Terk and received a privileged upbringing with the Terks, they spent their summers in Finland and traveled widely in Europe introducing Sonia to art museums and galleries. When she was 16 she attended a well-regarded secondary school in St. Petersburg, where her skill at drawing was noted by her teacher. When she was 18, at her teacher's suggestion, she was sent to art school in Germany where she attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. She studied in Germany until 1905 when she decided to move on to Paris. She apparently made the decision to move to Paris after reading Julius Meier-Graefe's book Manet und sein Kreis which claimed that Paris was the center of true art.
When she arrived in Paris she enrolled at the Académie de la Palette in Montparnasse. Unhappy with the mode of teaching, which she thought was too critical, she spent less time at the Académie and more time in galleries around Paris. Her own work during this period was strongly influenced by the art she was viewing including the post-impressionist art of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Henri Roushers and the fauves including Henri Matisse and Derain. During her first year in Paris she met, and in 1908 married, German homosexual art gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde. Little is known about their union, but it is assumed to have been a marriage of convenience to escape the demands of her parents, who disliked her artistic career, for her to return to Russia. Sonia gained entrance into the art world via exhibitions at Uhde's gallery and benefit from his connections and Uhde masked his homosexuality through his public marriage to Sonia.
Sonia met Robert Delaunay in early 1909: his aunt was a regular visitor at Uhde's gallery. They became lovers in April of that year and it was decided that she and Uhde should divorce. The divorce was finalised in August 1910, as she was pregnant. She and Robert quickly married on November 15, and their son Charles was born on January 18. They were supported by an allowance sent from Sonia's aunt in St. Petersburg.
n 1911 Sonia made a patchwork quilt for Charles' crib, which is now in the collection of the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris. This quilt was created spontaneously and uses geometry and color. Contemporary art critics recognize this as the point where she moved away from perspective and naturalism in her art. Around the same time, cubist works were being shown in Paris and Robert had been studying the color theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul, they called their experiments with color in art and designsimultanéisme. Simultaneous design occurs when one design, when placed next to another, affects both; this is similar to the theory of colors (Pointillism, as used by e.g., Georges Seurat) in which primary color dots placed next to each other are "mixed" by the eye and affect each other. Sonia's first large scale painting in this style was Bal Bullier (1912-13), a painting known for both its use of color and movement.
The Delaunays' friend, poet and art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term Orphism to describe the Delaunays' version of cubism in 1913. It was through Apollinaire that Sonia met friend and collaborator, poet Blaise Cendrars in 1912. She illustrated his poem La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (“The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France”) about a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, by creating a 2m long accordion type of book. Using simultaneous design principles the book merged text and design. The book, which was pretty much sold by subscription, created a stir amongst Paris critics. The simultaneous book was later shown at the Autumn Salon in Berlin in 1913 along with paintings and other applied artworks such as dresses, and it is said that Paul Klee was so impressed with her use of squares in her binding of Cendrars' poem that they became an enduring feature in his own work.
In 1914 they traveled to the Iberian Peninsula where they lived for roughly six years while the First World War raged in Europe. In Portugal Sonia and Robert met with several Portuguese artists, including Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, with whom they had an intense friendship. Her most important work from that period is The Market at Minho. The Delaunays were in Barcelona when the Russian Revolution occurred. Realizing that they would no longer receive special support from her family, Sonia concluded that she would have to make a living from applied arts and her career in design and theatre began.
In 1920 Sonia returned to Paris and in 1924 she opened a fashion studio together with Jacques Heim. In 1925 she participated in Exposition Interationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (Art Deco) in Paris together with Vadim Meller, Aleksandra Ekster, Nathan Altman and David Shterenberg. Her work extends to painting, textile design and stage set design. She was the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in 1964 and in 1975 was named an officer of the French Legion of Honor.
Sonia Delaunay-Terk died in 1979 in Paris.