• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 2255

    The Modern Age: The Collection of Alice Lawrence

    5 - 6 November 2008, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 56

    Fernand Leger (1881-1955)

    Les danseuses aux clés, étude

    Price Realised  


    Fernand Leger (1881-1955)
    Les danseuses aux clés, étude
    signed and dated ' F. LEGER. 28' (lower right)
    oil on canvas
    28¾ x 36 1/8 in. (73.5 x 92 cm.)
    Painted in 1928

    Contact Client Service
    • info@christies.com

    • New York +1 212 636 2000

    • London +44 (0)20 7839 9060

    • Hong Kong +852 2760 1766

    • Shanghai +86 21 6355 1766

    Contact the department

    During the late 1920s, Léger discarded the rigid frames seen in his Purist-influenced compositions, and allowed previously grounded objects to float freely on the canvas. The geometric forms that had governed the structure of his still-life paintings gave way, although not completely, in favor of more organic and figurative motifs. In the present painting, Les danseuses aux clés étude, Léger juxtaposes the undulating lines of his human figures, which appear to swim in a cloud-like pictorial space, with the sharp geometric edges of objects - a triangle and the abstracted forms of keys--to create a sense of dynamic flow across the canvas.

    An ordinary set of house keys became a central element in many of Léger's paintings during the late 1920s and early 30s, the most important of which is La Joconde aux clés, 1930, (Bauquier, no. 712, fig.1). Léger related the story behind this painting: "One day I had painted a bunch of keys on a canvas. They were my own. I had no idea what I was going to place next to them. I needed something absolutely different from the keys. When I had finished working I went out. I had hardly gone a few steps when what did I see in a shop window? A postcard of the Mona Lisa! I understood at once. What could provide a greater contrast to the keys? I achieved the most risky painting in this way from the point of view of contrasted objects" (quoted in P.De Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p.111). During the early 1920s, Léger sought to measure his art against the old masters by treating their classical subject matter, such as the nude, but now he sought to challenge traditional notions of good taste in painting by discarding grand and conventional subjects in favor of commonplace objects, which he wanted to elevate to a state where they would become the true and proper subjects of modern painting. Léger's iconoclastic approach during this time makes him an early predecessor to the Pop Art movement of the 1950s and 60s.

    At first glance, Léger's pictorial strategy of combining disparate and seemingly unrelated objects in the same composition appears to have been influenced by Surrealism; however, he was not in any way a member of or allied to that circle of artists and writers. He discounted the approach of painters like Dalí and Tanguy, for he believed that a subconscious or automatic response had no role in his illogical object groupings. Léger did not aim for any transcendental vision of reality, he was instead being strictly pictorial in his choices, as he pursued his lifelong ideal of expressing contrasts of subjects, color and form. The figures in the present painting, which are clearly female, have few distinctive features, and are instead broad representations of the organic, human aspect of the canvas; they have become objects themselves, which Léger has contrasted with the hard geometry of the keys. Léger wrote, "it became possible to see the human figure in terms of its plasticity only, without evaluating it in terms of sentiment" (quoted in ibid., p. 115).

    The present painting is one the earliest examples of Léger's juxtaposition of floating figures and objects. He painted a second, definitive canvas of this subject, at more twice the dimensions, in 1930 (Bauquier, no. 698; Moderna Museet, Stockholm). During this period he also depicted figures in conjunction with other objects, such as tools, house wares, furnishings, and townscapes, all set in an undefined space. "I place objects in space so that I could take them as a certainty. I felt that I could not place an object on a table without diminishing its value I put the object in space, minus perspective" (quoted in ibid, p. 111). His aesthetic of a pictorial harmony drawn from contrasts was fully realized in these rhythmic canvases, in which his belief in the democracy of subject matter gave rise to most extreme and unpredictable forms of representational plasticity.

    (fig. 1) Léger, La Joconde aux clés, 1930. Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot. BARCODE 25995343


    Private Collection, Paris.
    E.J. Van Wisselingh & Co., Amsterdam.
    Private collection, France; sale, Christie's, London, 30 November 1981, lot 29.
    Anon. sale, Christie's, New York, 19 November 1986, lot 47.
    Galerie Cazeau Béraudière, Paris.
    Acquired from the above by the late owner, October 2000.

    Pre-Lot Text



    Miyagawa, 'Braque--Léger,' in L'Art du monde, Tokyo, 1968, vol. 18, p. 95 (illustrated).
    G. Le Noci, Fernand Léger, sa vie, son oeuvre, son rève, Milan, 1979, p. 81 (illustrated).
    G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue Raisonné 1925-1928, Paris, 1993, p. 294, no. 567 (illustrated in color, p. 295).


    Paris, Musée des arts decoratifs, Fernand Léger, June-October 1956, p. 207, no. 68 (illustrated).
    Paris, Galerie H. Odermatt-Ph. Cazeau, Maîtres des XIXe et XXe siècles, 1989, no. 33 (illustrated).