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Fernand Leger Lot 03
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
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Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Les femmes à la toilette

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Les femmes à la toilette
signed and dated ‘F. LÉGER 20’ (lower right); signed and dated again, titled and inscribed 'F.LEGER 20 Les deux femme a la toilette I'ETAT' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
25 1/8 x 18 ¼ in. (65.3 x 46.5 cm.)
Painted in 1920
Galerie Louis Carré, Paris.
Bernard and Alva B. Gimbel, New York (acquired from the above, April 1951).
By descent from the above to the late owner.
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger catalogue raisonné 1920-1924, Paris, 1992, vol. II, p. 94, no. 249 (illustrated, p. 95; with incorrect dimensions).

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

When Léger received a medical discharge in early 1917, ending his front-line service in the First World War, he had not touched a paintbrush, he claimed, in three years. Many developments had transpired in the Parisian and wider European art world, even during war-time, for him to catch up on; he needed to update himself about later synthetic cubism, constructivism, abstraction and neo-plasticism, as well as the new classicism, among other trends. Léger plunged into his work to make up for lost time.
Remarkably, less than 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 highly charged, hard-edged pictorial manner entirely his own. The compactly configured and solidly architectonic Les femmes à la toilette, painted in 1920, serves as a key signpost marking the route Léger followed from the mechanical elements he had featured in his art following the end of the war, to the creation of his first iconic, impactful pictorial manifesto, in the shape of the sleekly aerodynamic nudes in Le grand déjeuner (Bauquier, no. 311), which he exhibited at the Salon d’Automne of 1921.
Even before the end of the Great War, le rappel à lordre—“the call to order”—had gone out, and soon became the banner under which many leading French artists gathered, to voice their response to the catastrophic, senseless slaughter of more than 1.4 million soldiers and civilians in their nation alone during the war. They sought to revive the grand tradition of classical humanism and the values of a native Gallic aesthetic in the arts. Even veteran cubists and futurists sidestepped the pre-war trends that had taken them toward dynamism, simultaneity and absolute modernity, to extol instead the classical virtues of rational order, balance, and clarity in their art.
Léger, however, during the late ‘teens remained dedicated to the brash, anti-order convictions of his earlier work. He 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. 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 an uncompromisingly dissonant and dynamic pictorial syntax.
“Modern Man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order," Léger declared. "All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces" (E.F. Fry., ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 52). He quickly revived the cylindrical, mechanical elements that he had introduced into his paintings before 1914, most notably seen in his famous series of Contrastes de formes. “I’ve reached a decision,” he wrote to his dealer Léonce Rosenberg, “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., op. cit., 1994, p. 68).
Then and henceforth, throughout his career, Léger would make contrasts in content and form the driving impetus in his art. He aimed to take ordinary and often dissimilar source materials, contradictory formal elements, and even seemingly incompatible pictorial effects into his painting and attain through them “a state of plastically organized intensity" (E.F. Fry., ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 25). During the years 1918-1920 there was no other major painter in Paris who stood so resolutely and unapologetically for such an extreme vision of modernity. Léger simply painted—as he put it—“what was going on around me” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 68).
By 1920 Léger had nevertheless begun to reconsider his position vis-à-vis the new classicism, and to import into his own work certain aspects of this tendency that might serve his own wide-ranging pictorial agenda, especially in terms of subject matter. The Louvre and other Paris museums had reopened; they brought their master paintings out of protective wartime storage and placed them back on view. The study of these pictures inspired in Léger a deepening awareness of the traditional and still relevant values in painting. He observed that the great masters of the past had staked their claim to posterity by painting the figure, and more specifically, by featuring the female nude.
In contrast to the predominance of male subjects that Léger had typically incorporated into his mechanical pictures, the paintings in the Femme au miroir and Femmes à la toilette series during 1920 mark the first sustained appearance of women in the artist’s work since before the war. Most significantly, this feminine presence opened up further possibilities in the variety of forms. The present Femmes à la toilette, and the larger definitive version painted the same year (Bauquier, no. 248), demonstrate the successful effect of imposing the curvilinear, cylindrical forms of the two female figures—who, while standing seen side-by-side, are perceived virtually as a single entity—on the masculine geometric grid of their surroundings.
Léger did not hesitate here to fragment the human form, even crop the upper head, while describing the figure only in the modernist terms of partial signs; he focuses the viewer’s gaze on the cascading curves of shoulder-length hair, a raised arm, joined hands and featureless faces. As the totality of these many contrasting structural components, the Femme à la toilette canvases project a weighty, monumental aspect that prevails over any conventional semblance of femininity, which Léger purposely redefined in purely plastic, modernist terms, as the expression of a new classicism. The mechanical element, still strongly present in his forms, bolsters this effect—Léger’s bourgeois boudoir more resembles a factory workshop.
The fully classicized, statuesque and polished grandeur of the lounging women—Léger’s odalisques—in Le grand déjeuner was still a few months in the offing. Having completed, as prologue, paintings such as the present Les femmes à la toilette, Léger established the subject, his method and the larger aesthetic conception that inform this powerful statement of modernity.
"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" (Léger, in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 25).
Les femmes à la toilette was acquired from Louis Carré Gallery in 1951 by Hope Gimbel Solinger’s parents, Bernard and Alva Gimbel—avid collectors who shared with Hope and her twin sister Caral Gimbel Lebworth a deep appreciation of the arts. The two sisters were both accomplished equestrians and dedicated philanthropists.

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