Delaunay made his mark in early 20th century Paris as the pioneer of Orphism, an avant-garde movement originating in Cubism and based on artistic theories concerning the inter-relationships of light and color. La verseuse portugaise dates from an exciting period during which Delaunay was consolidating his position as one of the greatest artists of the day, and one of the most important proponents of Cubism. Delaunay’s own unique cubist style retained a visual accessibility that many other cubist artists had since forfeited.
With the outbreak of the First World War, the artist moved to Portugal with his wife, Sonia; first residing in Vila do Count, and then in Valenia do Minho, where they remained until 1918. This temporary exodus from Paris, where Delaunay had found incredible stimulus from the artistic epicenter of Europe, was a period of calm and renewal for both artists. In Portugal he painted actively, experimenting in wax and with the playful juxtaposition of color and nuanced, distorted forms. Inspired by the simple life of his adopted country and bathed in the brilliant sun of his new surroundings, he described the "violent contrasts of colored marks, women's clothing, striking shawls of delicious, metallic greens, watermelons. Forms and colors: women disappearing in mountains of pumpkins, vegetables, enchanting markets" (quoted in P. Francastel, Robert Delaunay: Du cubisme a l'art abstrait, Paris, 1957, p. 127).
The present work is closely related to a major painting in the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (fig. 1), which portrays the same figure wearing her distinctive shawl, bent in concentration as she pours liquid from a pitcher into a cup. The Portugaises are of great importance in that they serve to underline the artist's progression towards an art in which color and design are on equal footing in the conception of the work as a whole, anticipating Delaunay’s later and purely abstract Rythmes series.
Delaunay's study of color theory was influenced by the painting of Georges Seurat, whose use of contrasting and complementary colors in his pointillist compositions revolutionized painting at the end of the 19th century. Delaunay expanded upon the expressive potential of color in his painting, concentrating on color as the ultimate means of representing reality. Max Imdahl has written: "for Robert Delaunay, colors are the painter's actual language. In addition, Delaunay considered the language of color the most human language imaginable in art. Every human being, he said, is capable of being affected by the universal language of colors, by their play, movement, chords, rhythms—in short, by those arrangements that are especially suited to man's natural inclinations" (Robert Delaunay: Light and Color, New York, 1967, p. 80).