After five years of wartime exile, Léger returned to France in December 1945. He was glad to be home. In "Art and the People," a 1946 article published in the journal Arts de France, Léger declared, "I want to tell what I felt in returning to France, the joy I have had in rediscovering my country... I assure you that the people have made a great advance in France. I assure you that a magnificent evolution has come about... I have faith in France" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger, Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 147-148). Léger began working toward a crowning series of large murals, culminating in La grande parade, 1954 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). Engaging in an increasingly diverse range of projects, within a few years he commanded a small army of studio assistants, artisans and craftsmen, to help him create ceramics, large sculptures, mosaics and stained-glass windows. He directed his own school, the Atelier Fernand Léger on the boulevard Clichy, where he had as many as a hundred students at a time. The reputation he had established in New York during the war encouraged many young Americans artists, including Sam Francis, Richard Stankiewicz, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, to seek him out and enroll in his classes under the G.I. Bill.
Remarkably, Léger found time to paint numerous easel-sized paintings as well, some of which are directly related to his larger compositions. There are also independent figures, abstract pictures that were intended as ideas for murals and still-life paintings in the time-honored French tradition of Chardin. The present spirited, colorful and pulsing still life-Nature morte au vase blanc of 1948 carries forward, in Léger's more freely composed and organic post-war style, the precedents of the great nature morte compositions he had done during the 1920s (e.g., Bauquier, no. 414). Still-life objects dominate the eight magnificent paintings of Braque's Atelier series done between 1949 and 1955, suggesting that for both men the nature morte-the painting of familiar objects in the studio environment-was the essential vehicle for contemplating the painter's craft at this late stage in each of their careers.
In Nature morte au vase blanc the vibrant jostle of forms, with contrasts between the carefully modelled white vase, plate of fruit with leaves jutting in different directions and brightly hued flowing abstract elements, testify to Léger's concern with line and form, but especially with color. "Color is a human need like water and fire," he explained in 1946. "It is a raw material indispensable to life. In every period of his existence and history, man has associated it with his joys, his acts, and pleasures" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., ibid., p. 149).
Compositional elements are bound together in this complex and large-scale canvas on a single, flattened but spatially ambiguous plane. Objects and the ground merge into a single, unified space. The irregular and twisting borders of the composition moreover appear to negate the rectangular format of the canvas. The artist thereafter employed this means of enmeshing object with ground to guide the composition of his relief sculptures in bronze and painted ceramic.
It is color that lends this work its sense of depth, despite the sparse conventional modeling. Bright primary colors separated by thick black outlines, create the semblance of space within the composition. Ten years before painting the present work Léger asserted that, "Color can enter into play with a surprising and active force without any need to incorporate instructive or sentimental elements. A wall can be destroyed by the application of pure colors... A wall can be made to advance or recede, to become visually mobile. All this with color" (quoted in ibid., p. 123). Léger's late "mural" style represents the ultimate evolution of the basic principles of painting that he set forth in his celebrated Contrastes de formes series of 1913-1914, "the simultaneous ordering of three plastic components: Lines, Forms and Colors" (quoted in ibid., p. 4).