La Tasse de thé is a key work in the series of female figure paintings that Léger undertook in 1920-1921, which culminated in a pair of masterworks: Le Petit déjeuner (fig. 1), and the final version of this subject, Le Grand déjeuner (fig. 2). The presence of the figure henceforth assumed primary and central importance in Léger's work. The artist designated the present painting as the "1er état" of the subject La Tasse de thé (to which he also sometimes referred as a cup of chocolate); he subsequently executed a larger état définitif, the painting which featured last year in the sale of the Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé at Christie's Paris (Bauquier, no. 304; fig. 3). Both canvases show a seated nude woman holding a cup of tea, with an open magazine on her lap. Another somewhat different image of this figure occupies the right hand side in the two Déjeuner pictures. The two La Tasse de thé canvases have been customarily viewed as studies for Le Grand dejeuner, which has come to be regarded as Léger's most significant painting of the 1920s. This is only part of their story, for in considering the ways in which the treatment of the nude and its setting here differs from Le Grand déjeuner, both versions of La Tasse de thé are indeed autonomous, self-contained works, as much an end in themselves as they were useful means toward the completion of Le Grand déjeuner. The Déjeuner and related figure pictures of 1921 mark an important turning point in the evolution of Léger's work during the years immediately following the First World War. They reveal the process by which the artist was investigating, testing and synthesizing various pictorial ideas that he observed around him as he navigated the many diverse cross-currents of post-war modernism. The lively play of figural and architectural elements in La Tasse de thé, rendered in vividly contrasting colors and abruptly abutting forms, stems from the voluble interaction of three pictorial styles: classicism in the conception of the female figure, primitivism in the purist-influenced simplification of the various still-life objects, and cubism in the structural elements that serve as a foundation for the grid-like spatial conception of this composition.
Léger had made contrasts of all kinds, in life and art, his mettle. It was his aim to take raw and often dissimilar source materials and to bring them in his paintings into "a state of plastically organized intensity." In La Tasse de thé and other works of 1921, the artist has fashioned what might have been a messy head-on collision of styles into a formally compact, boldly successful and novel synthesis of modernist syntax. As Christopher Green has pointed out, "Le Grand Déjeuner is at once traditional and new, a complex fusion of contradictory elements and conflicting pictorial effects" (Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 232). Léger, to a degree unequaled by any other painter of his time, authored a personal and distinctive style by juggling and creating a precipitous sense of order from several styles at once. Picasso, who was controversial in the 1920s for working in the two distinct manners of classicism and cubism, resorted to each approach as his subject required it--he normally reserved classicism for figures, and cubism for still-lifes--but he rarely mingled aspects of the two, and kept his twin styles discretely segregated.
Léger, the decorated citizen soldier and wounded veteran of the first World War, was discharged from military service in early 1918. As he pointed out, "three years without touching a paintbrush" had gone by (quoted in ibid., p. 96), and now he was finally able to resume painting full-time. The artist's experience of front-line service during the war, in which he had witnessed firsthand mechanized killing on a horrendous scale, seared his memory, but it did not discourage his love of the machine. He quickly revived the cylindrical, machine-like elements that he had introduced into his paintings before the outbreak of the war, as seen in his famous series of Contrastes de formes and related works of 1913-1914 (fig. 4). He wrote to Léonce Rosenberg, his dealer, "As I soon as I was freed, I started to profit from those difficult years; I've reached a decision, and I'm modeling in pure, local colour and on a large scale without making any concessions... The war made me what I am, I'm not afraid to say so" (quoted in D. Kosinski, ed., Fernand Léger: The Rhythm of Modern Life, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Wolfburg, 1994, p. 68).
Léger viewed the Great War as an irrefutable sign that society had broken with the past and its outworn values, and was now entering a new and genuinely modern reality. There was no going back. At the very beginning of an article published in 1924, Léger famously proclaimed: "Modern man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order. All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces" (in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 52). He made the machine and the life of the city his chief subject matter, and to this end he did not hesitate to employ mechanical elements as his pictorial stock in trade. In some of his post-war paintings Léger subsumed, fragmented and even disassembled the figure within his compositions, so that the human image appeared as a mere cog in a completely mechanical and industrialized environment. In other pictures Léger altogether eliminated the human presence in preference for the machine, a step that placed his work on the very cutting edge of the modernist imagination, at a frontier as far removed from conventional pictorialism as the abstractions of Kandinsky and Mondrian.
While Léger had been at the front, the practice of cubism back in Paris had entered its "crystalline" or classical phase, in which rational order, balance and clarity--a direct response to the senseless slaughter in the trenches--was being extolled at the expense of the pre-war emphasis on dynamism, simultaneity and modernity. Le rappel à l'ordre, "the call to order," had gone out, and soon became a notion to which most artists of the avant-garde would subscribe after the armistice. This essentially conservative agenda sought to revive the grand tradition of Gallic humanism and classical values in the arts. As Léger resumed painting, he was unconcerned about swimming against this tide, despite the express reservations of Rosenberg, who found the artist's mechanical paintings difficult to sell. Léger in the late teens remained fast and true to the brash, anti-order convictions of his earlier years. He insisted on countering the increasingly escapist classicism of the post-war Paris avant-garde with his own message of wholly contemporary and cosmopolitan subject matter, which he cast in uncompromisingly dissonant and dynamic pictorial forms. Picasso had begun to play with historical styles and cultivate his neo-classical Arcadia, an approach that was vital and engaging in its way, but represented more an inner mythic vision of existence than any sort of contemporary reality. Léger, on the the other hand, simply painted--as he put it--"what was going on around me" (quoted in D. Kosinski, ed., op. cit., p. 68). During the years 1918-1920 there was no other major painter in Paris who stood so resolutely and unapologetically for modernity; only the recently arrived Dadaists with their anarchic and absurdist antics were staking out a territory that lay further beyond the newly redrawn lines of law and order in the Paris art world.
Positivistic, progressive and inclusive in his outlook, Léger was adroit in understanding and bridging the contrasting notions in any dialectical framework. He was able to analyze, stir together and then expand upon ideas that for others might have been irreconcilable and counter-productive to any sort of aesthetic unity. This method was true to his inclination for seeking out and capitalizing on contrasts in subject, object, form and color of all kinds, on any level. Nevertheless, by 1920 Léger sensed there was probably some merit in adapting to the "call to order" as one more stylistic ploy. The Louvre and other Paris museums were taking their master paintings out of protective wartime storage and placing them back on view; renewed exposure to these riches encouraged Léger to develop a stronger awareness of artistic tradition, with its primary emphasis on the human figure. The human image--the figure serves as the primary and central subject in art--was the signal theme by which all past European masters 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 and modern conception of the figure must be massive and monumental, have substance and solidity, Léger decided, so that it might properly assume and hold its place in the mechanical environment. Cézanne in his late bathers had provided an impressive model for this new construct of the figure. The late nudes of Renoir, once derided by modernists for their exaggerated sensuality and the outworn use of Impressionist technique, were also timely and relevant, especially in terms of their grandly volumetric aspect, as well as their classical connections to Rubens, Titian and other old masters. Both Matisse and Picasso were looking closely at late Renoir--Matisse had befriended the elderly and ailing painter during his final year, and Picasso purchased from his dealer Paul Rosenberg one of the finest seated bathers in Rosenberg's large inventory of Renoir's work. Léger was also receptive to influence from painters of his own generation. The formal distillation and compositional equilibrium of the purist style, as advocated by Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier), held interest for him, as did the rigorous and uncompromising abstract grids of Piet Mondrian and his fellow De Stijl painters. There were many routes to modernity, and in Léger's view, no one "ism" possessed the wherewithal to preclude any or all of the others. Picasso was already playing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in his work with alternating neoclassical and cubist styles. Léger saw no reason why he could not take this polymorphic approach to painting one step further, and he decided it was possible to make even divergent strands of modernist pictorial thinking co-exist and complement each other on the same canvas.
As for precedents among the old masters, Léger searched farther afield than many of his colleagues. In addition to the re-opening of the Louvre, treasures from the trove of medieval art in the Musée de Cluny were also on view once again. Léger was amazed at the ability of the manuscript illuminators and the primitivist painters of the 14th and 15th centuries to create figures that projected a powerful pictorial presence, placed as they were against flat, patterned backgrounds that made minimal use of developed perspective. He was especially interested in the rounded and full-bodied forms seen in the figures of the 15th century French master Jean Fouquet (fig. 5). Among later French painters he was drawn to the Le Nain brothers of the 17th century, whose La Famille de paysans dans un intérieur in the Louvre quickly became a favorite among modern artists for the classic simplicity of its realism, and the straightforward and non-sentimentalized treatment that the brothers had accorded their homely subject. Léger realized that genre painting, which the Impressionists and successive modernists had summarily dismissed, was actually still viable, provided that its elements were drawn strictly from modern life and were depicted without the overlay of sentiment that genre painters customarily imposed on their subjects. The task Léger now set for himself was to take on the treatment of the human figure, "not as a sentimental element," he stated, "but solely as a plastic element" (quoted in ibid., p. 46). In this way he could utilize, transform and revitalize virtually any traditional subject or pictorial convention he chose to treat, and thereby imbue it with contemporary relevance. The time was now ripe for Léger to turn his interest toward the female nude, an historically hot and loaded subject that would put his attitude of cool, formal detachment fully to the test.
Léger's concerns during 1920 had already shifted from an emphasis on the machine to the presence of the human body, as the artist began to reinstitute the human form as a central plastic element in his compositions. In some paintings the human and mechanical elements appeared to contend with each other in a dizzying multi-facetted simultaneist pictorial manner (fig. 6). Léger pursued this thread into 1921, but then he began to lift, as it were, to bring forward the figure as an integral entity from the confines of its geometrical context, but without fully releasing it. Léger later recalled, "I needed a rest, to breathe a little. 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. Later it developed, slowly, towards a more realistic, less schematic representation" (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47).
The nude young woman holding a cup and magazine in La Tasse de thé first appeared in a shaded pencil drawing now in the collection the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, which also shows no less than a fully realized preliminary conception of Le Grand déjeuner with all three figures, and including many of the accessory objects together with the felicitous presence of the crouching dog (fig. 7). Léger dated this sheet 1920--if accurate (not always the case with this artist's drawings, which were often initialed and dated later on), this would indicate that his idea for the large three-figure Déjeuner composition was already fixed in his mind nearly a year before he finished the painting in the early autumn of 1921. There is also in the Kröller-Müller a study of the two left-hand nudes, as well as another drawing which is very closely related to the two versions of La Tasse de thé (the latter, fig. 8). Léger followed up each of these pencil studies with two oil paintings; in both cases the second version measures some 12 inches (30 cm) taller than the first--Le Grand déjeuner is similarly larger than Le Petit déjeuner.
Each of these Déjeuner--related paintings follows its respective pencil drawing very closely; yet it is readily apparent that both the drawings and the pursuant canvases vary in numerous small ways from the large Déjeuner picture as Léger completed it--he retouched and finalized the canvas in late 1921, after having shown it in the Salon d'Automne that year. The two La Tasse de thé paintings also differ in many details from the initial pencil study dated 1920. The presence of variant ideas among these works suggests that Léger was spinning off related, satellite paintings from the central Déjeuner conception, creating fully finished paintings that were indeed significant and useful as studies, but at the same time, he intended that these canvases should stand apart as unique and completely independent compositions in their own right. This had been his customary method of working in themes since before the war, and would remain so for the rest of his career.
The modern cosmopolitan setting in Léger's art had previously been a primarily masculine domain, a world of architecture, engineering and commercial activity. Even as he was painting the Déjeuner--related canvases, he focused again on male figures in the country-life Paysage animé paintings of 1921 (Bauquier, nos. 267-285). But now that he was working on Le Grand déjeuner, Léger had truly entered for the first time in his work the characteristically feminine realm of the domestic interior, leaving the dissonant dynamism and bustle of the outer world behind. This change of place opened up a completely new field of contrasts for development in his work. This theme provided Léger with the opportunity to showcase and contrast a recognizably more curvilinear feminine subject against the rigid masculine geometry of her surroundings, a conception that underscores the figure-ground relationship in La Tasse de thé. Léger had observed how "A contemporary fashionable party contrasts the men's severe, crisp black clothes with the prettier and more delicately colored dresses of the women. An epoch of contrasts... So I am consistent with my own time" (E.F. Fry, op. cit., p. 30).
It did not follow, however, that the appearance of women in Léger's work would overtly feminize his mechanical style. Léger was unfailingly consistent in his approach: "I apply the law of contrasts... I organize the opposition of contrasting values, lines, and curves. I oppose curves to straight lines, flat surfaces to molded forms, pure local colors to nuances of gray. These initial plastic forms are either superimposed on objective elements or not, it makes no difference to me. There is only a question of variety" (quoted in ibid., pp. 24-25). Léger did not hesitate to couch his conception of the domestic interior in mechanical, grid-like terms, and he likewise conceived the contemporary female nude not as the warmly soft, fleshy and sensual creature that artists are wont to depict, but on the contrary, he rendered her in the present painting and her sisters in the Déjeuners as a hard-edged mechanical assemblage of aero-dynamic curvilinear forms and cylindrical parts. Christopher Green has written that "[Léger's] nudes in themselves generate a sense of conflict, for they are not merely classical but modern, so than an awareness of tradition strikes against an equally powerful awareness of the mechanically new" (op. cit., p. 232). This was excitingly new and uncharted territory in French painting. Paintings such as La Tasse de thé were indeed striking in their time, for they had the vital, adventurous, and edgy look of truly contemporary art. And true to the classical ideal, these women seemed timeless. Fabricated as Léger had designed them, as if from indestructible steel and sleekly polished chrome, they were meant to last for all eternity. Kenneth E. Silver has written:
"When Léger said his figural works of circa 1921 belonged to the 'classical line', he was partaking of a vocabulary that dominated Parisian artistic discourse, and artistic production, in the early 1920s. The monumental seated nude of La Tasse de thé is the cousin of Picasso's contemporaneous hefty classical nudes and Braque's Canephors. But where the two founding cubists were willing to pastiche the Parthenon metopes and Jean Goujon's Fountain of the Innocents reliefs, Léger's classical ladies remain firmly rooted in the here and now. Anything but nostalgic, the protagonist of La Tasse de thé is insouciantly modern... This then is Léger's fully developed conception of an eternal subject, the voluptuous modern woman, as at home in 1920s Paris as she would have been in Fifth Century BC Athens" (Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé, Christie's sale catalogue, Paris, 23 February 2009, p. 243).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Le Petit déjeuner, 1921; formerly in the collection of Burton and Emily Tremaine; sold Christie's, New York, 5 November 1991, lot 10.
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Le Grand déjeuner, 1921. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, La Tasse de thé, 1921. Formerly in the Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé; sold, Christie's Paris. 23 February 2009, lot 38.
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, La Femme en rouge et vert, 1914. Sold, Christie's New York, 4 November 2004, lot 32.
(fig. 5) Jean Fouquet, Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins, chancellier de France, 1450-1460; Musée de Louvre, Paris.
Barcode: 2062 6921 FIG
(fig. 6) Fernand Léger, Les Femmes à la toilette, 1920. Sold, Christie's New York, 6 May 2008, lot 37.
(fig. 7) Fernand Léger, Étude pour 'Le Grand déjeuner', 1920. Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo.
(fig. 8) Fernand Léger, Étude pour 'Le Grand déjeuner', 1921. Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo.
Barcode: M*EAL 20