Painted in 1929, Les deux soeurs shows two female figures rendered through Fernand Léger's unique and idiosyncratic style. There is a clear sense of order in the rounded forms of the sisters, the strangely undulating, vinyl-like forms of the hair, the sense of geometry that permeates the various lines and shapes that combine to create them. This reveals Léger's intention to create an aesthetic that allowed him to present timeless and universal themes through a means suited to the mechanical age. The patterns of the clothing of the two figures have a density that is in deliberate contrast with the sparse background, which itself harks more to the Purism espoused by some of Léger's contemporaries such as Le Corbusier and Ozenfant. In this, Léger's Les deux soeurs shows the extent to which the artist was reacting to the general Zeitgeist shared by so many of the members of the avant-garde during this time, espousing the Rappel à l'ordre.
This had initially taken the form of a return to classical precedents, an ethos that reacted to the chaos of the horrors and destruction of the First World War. Léger himself had fought in the War; he had seen his beloved machines cause untold deaths. However, he remained fascinated with the gleaming technology of the Maxim guns and cannons and saw a sense of reason through science informing it. In the immediate wake of the First World War, many of his pictures showed mechanical themes taken almost to the point of abstraction. Even in pictures of other subjects, he used a mechanical visual lexicon in order to compose his images. This, though, gave way to a period in which he began to explore the human subject in a new light, no longer as the mere pretext for an exploration of the contraste de formes, although of course Les deux soeurs also thrives on its own contrasts. In part, pictures such as Trois femmes (Le grand déjeuner), now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and its heirs such as Les deux femmes debout of 1922 in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and Les deux soeurs were the result of a personal quest:
'I had broken down the human body, so I set about putting it together again and rediscovering the human face... I wanted a rest, a breathing space. After the dynamism of the mechanical period, I felt a need for the staticity of large figures' (Léger, quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh.cat., New York, 1998, p. 188).
During this period, Léger began to explore the human figure; interestingly, over the years he presented their deliberately voluminous forms against a range of backgrounds. Sometimes it was through a contrast with a hectic scene of geometric shapes, sometimes against a monochrome field as in Deux femmes sur fond bleu from 1927 and sometimes, as here, against a combination. In Les deux soeurs, the background verges on the edge of Mondrian-like restraint, lightened by the hints of figuration and domesticity of the curving curtain and the oval picture frame but otherwise consisting of rigorous rectangular fields of colour.
When Léger began these explorations of the human figure, he selected as his subject matter not the workers and engineers who had formerly been his favoured themes but instead women who sometimes even teetered on the brink of being odalisques. In this, he was reconciling his love of some of the great artistic 'inventors' of the past, as he saw them, with the modern world. He now took his own invention, his own language of mechanical form, and turned it to the women who had been favoured by predecessors as diverse as Jean Fouquet, Nicolas Poussin, Gérard David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. In a way, there is a common trait between these artists in terms of the sense of surface that they all brought to their paintings, be it in portraits or other scenes. There is a certain plasticity that runs through them all. The smoothness of Fouquet's Madonna or of one of Ingres' female sitters finds a counterpart in the age of technology in the metallic grey, curving tubular forms of the exposed 'flesh' in Les deux soeurs, as is accentuated by the wavy, oscillating hair. Discussing the precedents of the exploration of contrasts through which he was seeking to rehabilitate the representation of the human body with an aesthetics suited to his era, Léger later explained:
'As long as the human body is considered a sentimental or expressive value in painting, no new evolution in pictures of people will be possible. Its development has been hindered by the domination of the subject over the ages... In contemporary modern painting, the object must become the leading character and dethrone the subject. Then, in turn, if the person, the face, and the human body become objects, the modern artist will be offered considerable freedom. At this moment, it is possible for him to use the law of contrasts, which is the constructive law, with all its breadth. This law of contrasts is nothing new. If one looks at the past, one can observe that even if traditional painters did not use it, at least they had an inkling of it in the composition of their pictures' (Léger, Functions of Painting, ed. E.F. Fry, London, 1973, p. 132).
For Léger, it was in terms both of composition and of subject matter that these artists all acted as predecessors, alongside the members of the Le Nain brothers, and he brought this to his own leisure-themed images of women eating, drinking, reading or standing as though for a portrait, as here. This atmosphere of leisure was crucial to the atmosphere of civilisation that Léger and his contemporaries were seeking to tap in their works during this period.
It is intriguing, looking at the extreme physicality, the dense presence of the forms, in Les deux soeurs to look at the parallel developments in the work of his fellow artist, Pablo Picasso. In many of his works from this time, Picasso sought his own classicism by creating a voluminous sense of form, lending his figures such as Femme assise (Femme à la chemise) of 1921 an intense atmosphere of poise, of the monumental and the timeless. Léger's Les deux soeurs combines a different yet clearly related sense of the monumental with the Purism, an aesthetic that would in turn come to influence Picasso, of the background.
It is a tribute to the quality of Les deux soeurs that it was formerly in the collection of Madame Bourdon. When her collection was offered at auction in 1990, this was one of seven pictures by the artist that were included alongside a range of avant garde works by artists as varied as Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Picabia, de Staël and Dubuffet.