When Léger received a medical discharge in early 1917, ending his front-line service in La Grande Guerre, he had not picked up a paintbrush in fully three years. Many developments had transpired in the Parisian and wider European art world in the interim; Léger needed to catch up on later synthetic cubism, constructivism, abstraction, and neo-plasticism, as well as the new classicism. Seeking to make up for lost time, he plunged into his work. Remarkably, just four years later, Léger had achieved a position at the very forefront of the avant-garde. He espoused a radical program for absolute modernity, which he asserted in a hard-edged, sleekly mechanical pictorial manner, entirely his own. His first fully fledged manifesto of this new idiom was Le grand déjeuner (Bauquier, no. 311; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), which he exhibited at the 1921 Salon d’Automne; a preliminary version of this masterwork is offered in the present sale. Les trois femmes au bouquet, painted in 1922, represents the next stage in the evolution of Léger’s unique vision, as he continued to probe the broad signifying potential of his most timely and modern Three Graces.
When he first resumed painting in 1917, Léger remained dedicated to the brash, anti-order convictions of his earlier, cubist-inspired work. He viewed the Great War as an irrefutable sign that society had broken with the outworn values of the past and was now entering a new, genuinely modern reality. He persisted in countering the increasingly conservative, and at times even escapist classicism of the post-war Paris school by advocating the use of wholly contemporary and cosmopolitan subject matter, which he cast in uncompromisingly dissonant and dynamic pictorial forms. He simply painted, as he put it, “what was going on around me” (quoted in D. Kosinki, ed., Fernand Léger: The Rhythm of Modern Life, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel, 1994, p. 68).
By 1920, however, Léger had begun to reconsider his position regarding the classicizing bent—le rappel à l’ordre (“the call to order”)—that had been promulgated throughout the arts even before the end of the war. Humanist in outlook, proudly Gallic in inspiration, the new classicism was intended as a balm on the great wound left by the most catastrophic war in all history until that time. Certain aspects of this tendency, Léger realized, might serve his own wide-ranging pictorial agenda. For what could be more innovative and up-to-the-minute than to meld tradition and modernity, creating a concise and strongly projected synthesis of ostensibly divergent strands culled from contemporary syntax? “An epoch of contrasts,” Léger declared. “So I am consistent with my own time” (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 30).
The Louvre and other Paris museums had re-opened by this time, bringing their master paintings out of wartime storage and placing them back on public view. The study of these canvases now inspired in Léger a deepening awareness of the traditional and still relevant values in painting. During the late teens, he had concentrated on the brashly mechanical—that is, “masculine”—aspect of modern life in the city, a world of architecture, engineering, and commercial activity. From 1920 onward, in contrast, he gave pride of place in his work to the female figure—the classical subject par excellence—and he transferred his mise-en-scène to the domestic interior, the gentler and more amiable world of women and the family.
In Le grand déjeuner, he directly confronted the highly charged theme of the female nude, by which so many past masters, from Titian to Ingres to Renoir and Matisse, had staked their claim to artistic greatness. Although Léger successfully revitalized this deeply traditional subject, he could not escape the suggestion of the Orientalist odalisque and other historicizing conventions that clung to the nude. Seeking a more authentically modern subject, he expanded his focus to encompass the example of Seventeenth-century genre imagery, in which simple daily routines and ordinary household moments provide a pretext for monumental figure painting. Particularly instructive was the work of the Le Nain brothers, whose Famille de paysans in the Louvre was a favorite among post-war artists for the classic simplicity of its realism and the straightforward, non-sentimentalized treatment of the homely subject. “During 1922 Léger was drawn towards subjects which were both less artificial and more realist,” Christopher Green has observed. “He attached his new mechanized classical ideal of the human figure more directly to the facts of everyday existence” (Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 235).
Les trois femmes au bouquet, which centers upon the modest domestic luxury of a floral bouquet, is a key signpost in this development. Léger painted three versions of the composition, refining it over a period of two years; the present canvas is his final, fully evolved rendering of the scene. He began to explore the imagery in 1920-1921, producing two oil studies of the woman with a bouquet and another two canvases in which a companion has joined her (Bauquier, nos. 252, 295-297). In 1921, Léger imported the reclining nude from Le grand déjeuner into the domestic tableau, placing her behind the two clothed women. One version of the complete, three-figure composition (no. 316; Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot) bears the date ‘1921’, as does an elaborately worked pencil study (sold, Christie’s New York, 11 May 1992, Lot 29); another oil is dated ‘1920’, implausibly too early, and was probably painted in 1921 as well (no. 253). In the present version, dated ‘1922’ and preceded by a second pencil study (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Leonard A. Lauder Collection), Léger pared down the composition to its essentials, removing a host of anecdotal details that appear in the other versions—a second bouquet, a book, a breakfast dish—to create his clearest and most intensely concentrated statement of the theme.
As he had in Le grand déjeuner, Léger consciously imparted to all the elements in Les trois femmes au bouquet the discipline of order—a palliative assertion of balance and equilibrium, which is as much the purposeful theme of these paintings as any of the actual contents that comprise them. The reclining nude, viewed at close range, creates a stable, calming horizontal that extends almost the full width of the composition; the two clothed figures, physically joined into a single entity, stand front and center before her, generating a dominant cruciform motif that activates the composition. The women all have an imposing volumetric presence and impassive countenance; where their flesh is exposed, it is colored pale, pearly gray like marble statues from antiquity.
At the same time, Les trois femmes au bouquet neither conceals its modernity nor blunts the force of Léger’s view of contemporary life. “Modern man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order,” he famously proclaimed. “All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces” (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 52). As such, Léger couched his conception of the domestic interior in mechanical, grid-like terms, and he rendered the female figure not as a fleshy, sensual object but as an assemblage of aerodynamic forms and cylindrical parts. This was excitingly novel and uncharted territory in French painting during the early 1920s; Léger’s paintings wear the vital, adventurous, and edgy look of an authentically contemporary art. Fabricated as if from indestructible steel and burnished chromium, his women are made to last. And thus, to come full circle, they aspire to the ultimate classical ideal—they are timeless and eternal. Classicism co-exists with modernism, tradition informs innovation, and both in turn are renewed and transformed.
The figure-in-an-interior paintings also provided Léger the opportunity to devise new contrasts of form, the driving force in his art since his earliest pre-war modernist efforts. He placed the recognizably more curvilinear feminine subject against the rigid masculine geometry of her surroundings, a conception that underscores the figure-ground relationship in Les trois femmes au bouquet. “A contemporary fashionable party contrasts the men’s severe, crisp black clothes with the prettier and more delicately colored dresses of the women,” he observed (quoted in, ibid., p. 30). Later in 1922, Léger would paint compositions of one, two, or three fully clothed figures, most notably La mère et l’enfant and Personnages dans un jardin (Bauquier, nos. 332-335). Here, however, he contrasts timeless nudity and contemporary dress, as well as multiple other dichotomies—reclining versus standing, frontal versus profile, grisaille versus color, even long tresses versus short—bringing together opposing elements “towards the realization of a state of plastically realized intensity” (ibid., p. 25).
The lively play of figural and architectural elements in Les trois femmes au bouquet, rendered in abruptly abutting forms, proceeded from Léger’s calculated fusion of several distinct but overlapping modernist imperatives. Late Cubism, of course, guided his formal analysis of the three figures; instead of a single melded form, each is a construction of distinct parts, integrated into the flattened spatial architecture of the interior setting. Léger rendered these elements in a kind of modernist “primitivism,” a minimally modeled simplification of form, using local color, which he gleaned from the Purism of Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, with a nod toward medieval manuscript illumination and pre-Renaissance masters such as Jean Fouquet. He turned as well to Seurat, not to study the latter’s Neo-Impressionist technique, but rather his use of horizontal and vertical elements to stabilize a composition. The rigorous and uncompromising abstract grids of Mondrian and his fellow De Stijl painters held interest as well, informing Léger’s translation of the contemporary household interior into a latticework of intersecting planar forms.
There were many routes to modernity in the post-war era, and in Léger’s view, no one manner possessed the wherewithal to preclude any or all of the others. Positivistic, progressive, and profoundly inclusive in his outlook, he was adroit in understanding and bridging the contrasting notions in any dialectical framework. He was able to analyze, amalgamate, and expand upon ideas that for other artists might have been irreconcilable and contrary to aesthetic unity in any form. Picasso had achieved his own controversial post-war manner by alternating between cubism and classicism as it suited his subject, typically reserving the former for still-life and the latter for figures. Léger saw no reason not to take this polymorphic approach to painting one step further. To a degree unequaled by any other artist of his time, he forged a personal and distinctive style by merging the competing strands of modernist pictorial thinking on the same canvas, while seeking out and capitalizing on contrasts of all kinds to create a masterly synthesis of form and idea.