As Léger responded to the post-war rappel à l'ordre, the 'call to order' taken up by the Paris avant-garde, he turned away from the brashly dynamic, mechanical manner of his earlier work, and his paintings began to assume a calmer, more balanced and consciously classical appearance. He remained steadfast to his basic principle of seeking contrasts in forms, but he now pursued these ideas in a different context, in which harmony and order supplanted dissonance. Léger became increasingly interested in the value of tradition, and he now strove in his art for the permanence of the classical and humanistic ideals that informed the great and enduring art of the past. He was keen on making his own significant statement, a monumental art, in which he would unite the order of classicism with modern life. Léger gave new emphasis to the idealisation of the human figure, especially the female nude. The great masterpiece of this period is Le grand déjeuner, 1921 (Bauquier, no. 311; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), in which three nude women lounge in a geometric interior surrounded by numerous still-life accessories. Léger gave his women smooth if rather full-bodied forms, which he derived from the voluptuous late nudes of Renoir and the odalisques of Ingres and Delacroix, and used their presence to contribute a leisurely, sensual dimension to his Purist interiors, creating new contrasts of form.
The male figure features less frequently in Léger's art during the first half of the 1920s, and appears only in a small number of fine and finished drawings, such as the present work. Léger did not turn many of these drawings into paintings, perhaps for the reason that the more firmly built and athletic masculine figure offered fewer contrasts with the typical hardness of Léger's architectural environmnent. One celebrated exception is Le Mécanicien (fig. 1) of 1920, where the central protagonist represents Léger's concept of a trusty artisan. Here, amidst the richly colored geometry of a purist background, the "everyman" figure seems not only closely related to the foremost wrestler Les Lutteurs but has also been suggested as a possible alter-ego for the artist himself.
The influence of 'Le Douanier' Rousseau on Léger was hugely significant. They first met in 1907 though the introduction of Robert Delaunay and thereafter Léger visited Rousseau frequently, accompanying the older man to exhibitions and joining a growing band of youthful acolytes who paid homage to the humble erstwhile Sunday painter. Although the naïve Rousseau shared none of Léger's ideological fervor and proselytizing instincts, it was Rousseau's uncomplicated vision, his assured sense of clarity and simplicity that brought the two artists together. "Fortunately he never had the time to take drawing lessons," wrote Léger approvingly (quoted in W. Schmalenbach, Henri Rousseau, Dreams of the Jungle, New York, 1998, p. 72).
Léger admired above all the inventive strain of Rousseau's work, freed from any obligation to slavish imitation or the conventional beau sujet, as well as his innate talent for the monumental. He also perceived a lack of sentimentality which he felt placed Rousseau within the august tradition of French classicism--from Fouquet and Clouet, through Poussin, to David and Ingres--a tradition in which Léger also saw himself. Moreover, though Rousseau remained skeptical of the innovations of the avant-garde who so revered him, it was his inclusions into his idyllic, archetypal landscapes of symbols of modernity such as telegraph poles, iron bridges, the Eiffel Tower and airplanes that further heightened his relevance for Léger who prized the celebration of the contemporary city. With the return to prominence of the human figure in Léger's work around 1920, his indebtedness to Rousseau's example becomes most clear. Les Lutteurs calls to mind in particular the sportsmen of Rousseau's Jouers de Foot-Ball (fig. 2), which Léger would certainly have seen it at the Salon des Indépendants of 1908.
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Le Mécanicien, 1920. National Gallery of Art, Ottawa.
(fig. 2) Henri Rousseau, Jouers de Foot-Ball, 1908. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.