The quintessential works of the 1920s in Léger’s oeuvre are the magisterial still-life compositions he painted during the middle years of that decade. These pictures manifest the supreme classical qualities of clarity, balance and order which were then in vogue, in response to le rappel à l’ordre (“the call to order”)—a patriotic message which had been promulgated throughout all the arts in France in the wake of the First World War. Léger painted Femme portant une statuette in 1925, at the apogee of his most classical phase. The presence of the female figure at this juncture, amid numerous still-life canvases, is a rare event, suggesting that an idea and a transformation were in the making.
This is a new kind of woman. She has only one reality, that which her creator Léger has bestowed upon her: she is a pictorial object. Leger has pared down the appearance of the female form to the absolute essentials. She is an idealized, purist conception of woman, and as such stands for all women. She is the painted embodiment of the sculpted profile—presented here as if it had been tooled on a lathe—which she holds before her. Together, they comprise a metaphor for artistic creation: the reality of form proceeds from an idea, be it a notion in the imagination, or an abstract invention drawn from the actual presence of a model in the studio. However Léger conceived her, he intended her to serve as a modernist secular icon for the modern era.
“The human figure can now be considered, not for its sentimental value, but solely for its plastic value,” Léger declared. “The human figure remains purposely inexpressive in the evolution of my work from 1905 until now. I know this very radical concept of the figure as object shocks a great many people, but I can’t help it” (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 155).
During the years following the end of the First World War, Léger sought to radically recast the aesthetic conception of beauty in the art of his time. To this end he combined elements drawn from classical traditions of the past with the increasingly mechanical realities of contemporary living, to create a burnished and gleaming vision of the essential forms that comprise the human presence and the objects of its manufacture in the modern world. Léger celebrated the machine environment during the late ‘teens, but after 1920 he abated the brash dissonance he had laid on this masculine aspect of modern life, and while still employing mechanically-derived elements, he sought to affirm the presence of womanhood as a central theme in his oeuvre, transferring his pictorial mise-en-scène from the external architecture of the city to the domestic interior. The twin peaks of this period are Le grand déjeuner, 1921 (the last and largest of three closely related canvases; Bauquier, nos. 309-311; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), and La femme et l’enfant, 1922 (Bauquier, no. 335).
Following this achievement, Léger directed his efforts during the mid-1920s toward showcasing the integrity of ordinary, everyday objects and elevating them to monumental status in his paintings. The subject, as understood in Western art since the Renaissance, was obsolete in modern painting, he argued, and it was time to emphasize the presence and character of the individual object, not as a means to an end—as in the traditional subject—but as the end in itself. Having achieved this goal in the grand still-life compositions he commenced in 1924, Léger knew he must accomplish the same for the figure, releasing it from all the superfluous, extra-visual connotations that had accrued to it over the centuries, so the human body might finally be seen in all its inherent beauty as purely plastic form.
"As long as the human body is considered a sentimental or expressive value in painting,” Léger reasoned, “no new evolution in pictures of people will be possible. Its development has been hindered by the domination of the subject through the centuries... In contemporary painting the object must become the leading character and dethrone the subject. Then, in turn, if the person, the face, and the human body will be 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" (quoted in ibid., p. 132).
As the “call to order” had gone out, the Louvre and other Paris museums were taking their master paintings out of protective wartime storage and placing them back on view. Especially impressive, as Léger discovered, were the 15th century portraits of Jean Fouquet, and the 17th century genre paintings of the Le Nain brothers. The image of the human form was, of course, the signal theme by which all past European artists of stature had staked their claim to posterity, and so it must be, Léger and his colleagues realized, for the generation of modern painters now coming of age.
The new, genuinely modern conception of the figure must be massive and monumental, possess substance and solidity, Léger decided, so that it might properly assume and hold its place among objects in the modern mechanical environment. Cézanne in his late bathers had provided a persuasive model for a modern construct of the figure, and the late nudes of Renoir, too, in their imposing volumetric presence—both these artists had summoned to the modernist table the classicism of Poussin, Rubens and Titian. Most importantly, Léger turned to the paintings of Seurat, not to study the latter’s Neo-Impressionist technique, but rather his use of virtually abstract silhouettes for the figure, and the deployment of horizontal and vertical elements to stabilize a composition. The recent De Stijl paintings of Mondrian—Léger’s dealer Léonce Rosenberg showed the latter’s work and published his text Néo-Plasticisme in 1921—had also been instructive to this end.
Léger relished the female figure as a theme that would put his attitude of cool, formal detachment fully to the test, while offering him some relief from the rigors of the mechanical style. “I needed a rest, to breathe a little,” he stated. “After the dynamism of the mechanical phase, I felt, as it were, a need for the static quality of the large forms that were to follow. Earlier I had broken up the human body. Now I began to put it together again. Since then I have always used the human form” (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47).
“Between 1925 and 1927 Leger produced a series of masterpieces,” Christopher Green has stated. “They were large, stable, utterly self-assured and marked the final maturity of the ordered classical approach which he developed from the last months of 1920. They are the product of a pictorial idea of the figure or object whose brutal ‘plastic’ simplicity is personal, but which is the product of an approach to the realities of modern life...Even now, in a decade which seems profoundly out of tune with the optimism that greeted accelerating technological progress during the 1920s, the grand classical qualities of these paintings remain convincing” (Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 310).