Fernand Léger

The French painter Fernand Léger (1881-1955) was one of the original cubists. The imagery of his mature paintings is concerned with the human figure in urban and technological environments.

At the turn of the century Paris was the acknowledged center of the international art world, a locus of extraordinary intellectual and creative vitality. Numerous artistic styles reached fruition at this time, included Fauvism, postimpressionism, and Art Nouveau. Moreover, there were individual masters working in Paris during these years, most notably Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, who would affect the entire history of modern art. It was within this charged atmosphere that Fernand Léger began his career as a painter.

Léger was born in Argentan, Normandy, on Feb. 4, 1881. In 1900 he moved to Paris, where he worked as an architectural draftsman and studied briefly at the École des Beaux-Arts. During this period he came under the influence of Paul Cézanne and Matisse, and he became friends with the modern primitive Henri Rousseau. By 1906 Léger had decided to devote himself entirely to painting, and from then until 1910 he gradually adjusted his art to the radical and burgeoning style of cubism.

Early Style

Léger's work from the early 1910s reflects many of the basic tenets of cubism. Pictorial space becomes increasingly shallow, and forms from the visible world gradually lose their identity, giving way to abstract planes of somber color. A distinctive feature of these early paintings involves Léger's personal penchant for machinelike constructions: however nonobjective the pictures are, their imagery seems to consist of metallic sheets, cones, and cylinders. Occasionally, human figures or landscape forms are translated into this new vocabulary, but, just as frequently, the mechanical elements appear as abstract ends in themselves. This interest in machine technology persisted throughout Léger's entire career. Some of his best and most characteristic early works are Nudes in the Forest (1910), Woman in Blue (1912), and Contrasting Forms (1914).

Léger's career was interrupted by World War I. He was mobilized in 1914, and in 1917 he was gassed and hospitalized for several months.

Between the Wars

During the 1920s Léger was highly productive not only in painting but in related fields. He designed sets and costumes for the Swedish Ballet (1921-1922) and collaborated with Dudley Murphey on a film, Ballet méchanique (1923-1924). The film, which utilized Léger's mechanistic images extensively, was a seminal work in the history of experimental cinema. Both activities reveal a characteristic feature of 20th-century art in general: the modern artist's persistent desire to relate his work to other creative fields and to combine the esthetics of different media.

In 1925 Léger designed a series of murals for the Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. His art was amply suited to such an enterprise, particularly in terms of its large scale and strong, projecting color. In addition, his concern with the human figure in its modern, technological environment made his art accessible in public and social terms. He continued to engage in public projects throughout his career, such as the mosaics for the facade of the Church of Notre-Dame at Assy (1949) and the murals for the United Nations General Assembly auditorium in New York City (1952).

During the 1920s, although Léger remained generally faithful to the cubist dicta of shallow space and planar construction, he began to broaden his forms, thereby achieving an increased sense of monumentality. The work from this period can be separated into two groups: figurative and nonfigurative.

The first group most successfully conveys Léger's machine-world philosophy. In The City (1919), for instance, forms of the urban environment are translated into large planar areas that suggest the enormous sweep of the city and its dwarfing of human inhabitants. But his vision of the modern world was never pessimistic. Paintings like Le Grand déjeuner (1921) and Woman with Flowers in Her Hand (1922) are populated by human figures who dominate their environments. With bodies constructed of brassy cones, spheres, and cylinders, and with black hair that resembles sheets of polished enamel, these figures are both as large and as powerful as the urban worlds they inhabit. In addition, Léger's color, which in the 1920s became more vibrant and aggressive, helped to corroborate his optimistic vision of the modern city.

Léger's nonfigurative paintings during this period are more intimate. Based on still-life motifs, they look like details or miniatures of the robust figurative panoramas. Nevertheless, they retain the artist's characteristic machine-world orientation. An excellent example of this style is Compass (1926).

Late Work

Between 1940 and 1946 Léger lived in the United States. He traveled extensively, responding enthusiastically to the American landscape, particularly to its vast urban complexes, and taught briefly.

Léger's style during these years, beginning actually in the late 1930s, shifted again. He continued to monumentalize his scale and to intensify his interest in the human figure. In many works, for instance, Romantic Landscape (1946) and Homage to David (1948-1949), he broke away from the shallow space of cubism, returning to a more classical figure and landscape imagery.

When Léger returned to France, he settled at Gif-sur-Yvette near Paris. There he continued to work on his painting and on public commissions until his death on Aug. 17, 1955.

Further Reading on Fernand Léger

Two excellent exhibition catalogs on Léger are Katharine Kuh, Léger (1953), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Fernand Léger: Five Themes and Variations (1962). A comprehensive survey of cubism, including Léger's relation to the movement, is Robert Rosenblum, Cubism and Twentieth-century Art (1961; rev. ed. 1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Diehl, Gaston, F. Léger, New York: Crown Publishers, 1985.