During 1920-1921, several years after the end of the First World War, Fernand Léger set his mind on painting a large canvas in which he would radically recast the aesthetic conception of beauty in the art of his time. He sought to combine thematic ideas derived from the classical traditions of the past with pictorial elements drawn from the increasingly mechanical environment of contemporary living. Léger forged from these disparate sources a sleekly polished and gleaming vision of the essential forms that in his view represented the reality of the human presence in the modern world. His efforts culminated in Le grand déjeuner, which he exhibited in the 1921 Salon d’Automne (Bauquier, no. 311). The present canvas, likewise titled and smaller in size (no. 309), marks the near final stage in the evolution of the artist’s conception as he readied his new chef-d’oeuvre for its public debut.
There are also two other preliminary versions—similarly in smaller dimensions than the Salon entry—both of which are titled Le petit déjeuner (Bauquier, nos. 194 and 310). The assignations “petit” and “grand” are related neither to the time nor nature of the repast—breakfast or luncheon—nor to the significance of one set relative to the other. Léger appears to have devised the different titles as a means of strategizing the development of slight variations within the three essays, prior to finalizing the disposition of all component elements in the definitive, full-size composition. Another dozen paintings treat the three female figures in the four Déjeuner canvases, individually or in pairs, attesting to the scope and thoroughness of the pictorial campaign to which the artist dedicated months of effort.
Nearly a century later, in our present digital age, the style that Léger forged in this quartet of pictures remains strikingly futuristic. The artist considered the final Le grand déjeuner to be his definitive work of the 1920s, and would ultimately rank it as one of the finest paintings and most influential pictorial statements of his entire career. Le grand déjeuner (Bauquier, no. 311) has since 1942 been a centerpiece in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and has become an icon of 20th century modernism, a consummate expression of l’esprit nouveau in its own day, and no less authoritative, prescient, and engaging in our own.
Le grand déjeuner and its related figure canvases of 1920-1921 mark a crucial turning point in the evolution of Léger’s work during the years immediately following the First World War, and established the long-term prospect in his art. They reveal the process by which the artist was investigating, testing, and synthesizing various pictorial concepts that he observed around him as he navigated the many diverse cross-currents of post-war modernism. "Le grand déjeuner is at once traditional and new,” Christopher Green has stated, “a complex fusion of contradictory elements and conflicting pictorial effects” (Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 232). Having juggled dissimilar concepts of style and coerced them into a jarringly novel and seemingly precipitous sense of order, Léger fashioned in Le grand déjeuner a boldly daring, formally compact, and novel synthesis of modernist syntax. The monumental interaction of figural and architectural elements in the Déjeuner canvases stems from the influence of classicism in the presence and idealized representation of the nude female figures, primitivism in the simplification of the various still-life objects, as well as cubism and early geometric abstraction in the structural elements that comprise the grid-like spatial context in the composition.
Since his earliest prewar modernist efforts, Léger had employed contrasts of all kinds as the fundamental impetus in his art. From diverse formal elements and motifs he aimed to generate “a state of organized intensity,” as he wrote in “Notes on the Mechanical Element,” 1923. “I apply the law of plastic contrasts, which I think has never been applied until today. I group contrary values together, flat surfaces opposed to modeled surfaces; volumetric figures opposed to the flat facades of houses; pure flat tones opposed to gray, modulated tones, or the reverse. Between these two kinds of relationships, which are eternal subjects for painting, I look for a relationship of intensity never before achieved…We live in a geometric world—it is undeniable—and a state of frequent contrasts” (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting by Fernand Léger, New York, 1973, p. 29).
A decorated front-line veteran of World War I, Léger spent months in hospitals convalescing from trench-induced rheumatism and pulmonary problems, but nonetheless managed to complete a major wartime painting, La partie des cartes, in December 1917 (Bauquier, no. 102). Finally released from military service in June 1918, he soon resumed painting full-time. The brutality of mechanized killing on a mass scale had traumatized many who had survived the war. His experience of the battlefield hardened Léger; he accepted the machine as a fact of modern life, and resolved to work—as he had done before the war—with all manner of contrasts in as brash and dissonant a style as contemporary reality so clearly required. “When I was discharged I could benefit from these hard years,” Léger wrote his new dealer, Léonce Rosenberg. “I reached a decision—without compromising in any way, I would model in pure and local color, using large volumes. I could do without tasteful arrangements…I was no longer fumbling for the key—I had it. The war matured me, I am not afraid to say so” (quoted in Léger’s Le Grand Déjeuner, exh. cat., The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1980, p. 68).
The years 1918-1920 constitute the apogee of Léger’s self-described “mechanical period.” In 1919 he completed La Ville—a disorienting cosmopolitan maze of signs, architectural fragments, and non-descriptive contrasts in form and color—as an aggressive statement of his intransigent contemporaneity (Bauquier, no. 163). Léger’s cultivation of disorder and disintegration stood diametrically opposed to another idea, which as a response to the devastation and carnage of the war years had been spreading throughout the creative arts. Late in the conflict, Jean Cocteau began to promulgate le rappel à l’ordre—“the call to order”—a revival of the humanist, classical legacy that the French believed lay at the heart of their cultural history. At the turn of the new decade, while resisting the more escapist, nostalgic Arcadian tendency in this movement, Léger had begun to consider the merits of adapting to the harmonious ideal and pictorial stability inherent in the classical ethos. To accomplish this, Léger came to realize, was the ultimate challenge in handling contrasts of form—he must find a way to meld classicism and modernity, tradition and contemporaneity in a novel and unprecedented manner.
The Louvre and other Paris museums were taking their old master paintings out of protective wartime storage and placing them back on view. Renewed exposure to these riches gave Léger pause to study the classical tradition, with its primary emphasis on the figure, the theme by which all past European artists of stature had staked their claim to posterity. So it must be, Léger decided, for the generation of modern painters now coming of age. Cézanne in his late bathers had provided an impressive model for this new construct of the figure. Seurat had integrated statuesque figures into an architectural framework. The late nudes of Renoir, once derided by modernists for their exaggerated sensuality and old-fashioned 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. Matisse and Picasso had been looking closely at late Renoir. “I needed a rest, to breathe a little,” Léger later recalled. “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” (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47).
The task Léger now set for himself was to represent the human figure, "not as a sentimental element,” he stated, “but solely as a plastic element" (quoted in ibid., p. 46). Viewing any kind of subject matter in this way enabled him to imbue it with a fresh presence and contemporary relevance. The time was now right for Léger to turn his interest toward the female nude, in its many connotations an historically hot and loaded subject, a theme that would put his attitude of cool, formal detachment fully to the test.
The composition of the three nude women in the Déjeuner paintings evolved from canvases painted during 1920 that first depicted the reclining nude within a rigidly right-angled architectural grid, then progressively added the vertical figures in a cruciform design (Bauquier, nos. 242ff). Léger picked up this thread again the following year (nos. 298ff), while also painting studies of the two women on the left and the tea-drinker on the right (nos. 303-308). Robert L. Herbert surmised that the drawing dated “20” (Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo), which should ostensibly indicate that Léger early had in mind the composition that would become Le grand déjeuner, was actually done after the oil studies of the figures had been completed—Léger then needed to join the two halves to create the single composition he planned to paint (exh. cat., op. cit., 1980, p. 17). The Minneapolis Le petit déjeuner (no. 194), which is clearly the first of the four Déjeuners to have been painted, following the Kröller-Müller drawing (as Herbert has stated), also bears a date—“19”—that is implausibly too early.
Whether the present Grand déjeuner was completed between the two Petit déjeuner canvases, or following the second, larger version of that title (Bauquier, no. 310), is unclear. Herbert noted that Léger typically worked “a number of paintings simultaneously, moving back and forth among them, learning from each” (ibid., p. 12). The artist, in any case, borrowed elements from all three preliminary versions for the final and largest Le grand déjeuner. A more precise analysis of this step-wise process is further complicated by the fact that Léger reworked the definitive painting in 1922, some months after the Salon d’Automne. Only a photograph published soon after the closing of the exhibition shows the painting as it was first seen. The white circle at upper left in the present Grand déjeuner similarly appears in the photograph, but not in the final composition, as one may view it at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Of the three preliminary Déjeuners, only the present version shows a flesh-colored tint in the tea-drinker, in contrast to her white companions; Léger employed an even darker tone in his reworking of the final painting.
In correspondence with Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the director of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, dated 20 November 1943, following the museum’s acquisition of Le grand déjeuner, Léger wrote is his imperfect English: “Some women’s bodies, one table, a dog, every time’s subject without any expression of evocation. It is the classical line, at my opinion. To put the subject or the object inside, behind the pictorial expression. The romantic is just the contrary, I believe; the subject or object come before, in expressive feeling. I have lived this uneasiness all my life and Le grand déjeuner is one of my classical fighting won” (quoted in ibid., p. 72).