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Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
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The Power of Color: Property from an Important Private Collection
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Grande nature morte

Details
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Grande nature morte
signed and dated ‘F. LEGER 39’ (lower right); signed and dated again and inscribed ‘F. LEGER 38 NATURE-MORTE' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
51 ¼ x 35 ¼ in. (130.3 x 89.5 cm.)
Painted in 1938-1939.
Provenance
Galerie Louis Carré, Paris.
Galerie Maeght, Paris.
Private collection, Paris.
Anon. sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 20 November 1988, lot 54.
Private collection, Switzerland (acquired at the above sale); sale, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2004, lot 54.
Private collection, United States (acquired at the above sale); sale, Christie’s, New York, 6 May 2014, lot 30.
Finartis Kunsthandels AG, Switzerland (acquired at the above sale).
Acquired from the above by the present owner on 19 June 2014.
Literature
J. Follain, "Fernand Léger" in Cahiers d'Art, 1940, vol. 15, nos. 1-2, p. 30 (first state illustrated; titled Composition au vase bleu).
P. Painlevé, "A propos d'un 'nouveau réalisme' chez Fernand Léger," in Cahiers d'Art, 1940, vol. 15, nos. 3-4 (illustrated in situ in the 1940 Galerie Mai exhibition).
G. Néret, F. Léger, Paris, 1990, p. 178, no. 235 (illustrated in color).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, 1938-1943, Paris, 1998, vol. VI, p. 100, no. 1038 (illustrated in color, p. 101; with incorrect provenance).
Exhibited
Paris, Galerie Mai, Oeuvres récentes de Fernand Léger, March 1940.
Recklinghausen, Ruhr-Festspiele, Deutsche und Französische Kunst der Gegenwart: eine Begegnung, June-July 1950, no. 21 (illustrated).
Berlin, Französische Malerei und Plastik, 1938-1948, May-June 1950, p. 14, no. 50 (illustrated; dated 1938 and with inverted dimensions).
Biot, Musée national Fernand Léger, Hommage à Fernand Léger: Exposition du centenaire, May-September 1981, no. 75 (illustrated).
Caracas, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Fernand Léger, October 1982, p. 79, no. 51 (illustrated in color; titled La raiz negra and with incorrect dimensions).

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Lot essay

I dispersed my objects in space and kept them all together while at the same time making them radiate out from the surface of the picture. A tricky interplay of harmonies and rhythms made up of background and surface colors, guidelines, distances and oppositions.”

Fernand Léger

Painted in 1938-1939, Fernand Léger’s impressively scaled and vibrantly colored Grande nature morte encapsulates both the aesthetic and ideological preoccupations of the artist at this time. Throughout the 1930s Léger endeavored to create a new artistic language that aimed not for mimetic reproduction of objects, but instead for an abstraction inspired by nature and the imagination. From the beginning of the decade, he had begun to introduce organic forms into his painting, initiating looser compositions that are permeated with visual rhythms and an energetic dynamism.


Léger began painting Grande nature morte in 1938, probably during the late summer, before departing by ocean liner from Le Havre on 15 September, bound for New York. He had twice previously undertaken trans-Atlantic crossings, to visit contacts and clients in various American cities, during September-December 1931 and September 1936-March 1937. Upon his return to his Paris studio in early March 1939 from this recent third trip, he resumed work on Grande nature morte, and then completed it, probably sometime in the early spring. The majority of Léger's easel output during this period consisted of still lifes such as Grande nature morte; a few also incorporate figures (Bauquier, no. 913). The artist's busy travel itinerary probably accounts for the relatively small number of figure compositions that he painted during the late 1930s, in contrast to previous years.

There were however, two such works that consumed much of his time and effort, both executed on a monumental scale: Adam et Eve, and the even more ambitious Composition aux deux perroquets, both of which he worked on between 1935 and 1939 (Bauquier, nos. 880 and 881, respectively). Following modernist decorative principles, the two murals are fundamentally flat in form and space; Léger even intended the rudimentary modeling he applied in the figures to impart a relief-like aspect that reinforces the shallowness of the ambient space. Composition aux deux perroquets would serve as the paradigm for Léger's monumental art during the remaining two decades of his career, in works which the artist intended to be not only grand in scale, but broadly public in their presence and impact. This was an art that had now taken on a social program, a bold development in the functions of painting that Léger had been contemplating since the early 1920s.

Color is a vital necessity. It is raw material indispensable to life, like water and fire. Man’s existence is inconceivable without an ambience of color.”

Fernand Léger 

Léger now seized the time, and a revolutionary time it was. In 1935 a coalition of leftist and centrist parties, organized labor and intellectuals formed the Front Populaire, advocating a democratically based progressive alternative to counter the growing ascendancy of fascism in Europe. Both moderate and even radical Front politicians controlled the French government during the years 1936-1938. Léger pledged his support in an article published on Bastille Day in the periodical Monde: “This July 14, 1935, will mark a date in the social and national rectification of France... We are coming out of a gray and confused time” (quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 138). The emergence of the Front Populaire represented for Léger the advent of a new and potentially transformational social consciousness, and this was precisely the opportunity he had been anticipating that would finally allow him to act on his ideas about bringing modern art out of the studio and into the everyday consciousness of the general public.

The plastic life, the picture, is made up of harmonious relationships among volumes, lines and colors. These are the three forces that must govern works of art.”

Fernand Léger 

The concurrent concentration that Léger placed on still-life subjects in his easel paintings—such as the present Grande nature morte—had their significant role in his larger socio-aesthetical agenda. He employed such compositions as vehicles by which he could test and verify the effectiveness of various formal means. His aim was the development of a successful decorative approach to the presentation of objects, whether taken from nature, the commercial sphere or the latest technology. He cut loose his chosen objects from the formal strictures of conventional spatial arrangement, and allowed them to float freely but inter-connectedly in space, together with those figures he might employ to accompany them. He intended that this method of composition should apply to all his work, from easel paintings of all sizes and formats to in- and outdoor murals executed on a grandly monumental scale.


Complementing the outsized scale of the murals that Léger was also working on at this time—including Nelson A. Rockefeller’s mural commission—the still-lifes of 1938-1939 demonstrate Léger's program for the New Realism translated into more intimate proportions for daily domestic appreciation. Grande nature morte, painted in the largest easel-size format that Léger selected for these compositions, depicts an interior/outdoor setting which comprises a conglomeration of objects, including a potted leafy plant set atop a wooden plank, some fruits still attached to their vine, sections of fence posts, all woven together with branches, roots and tendrils. The result is a lively, sprawling, but harmoniously unified composition of objects projected as lines, forms and colors, consistent with Léger's long-held fundamental principle, by which he sought to “apply the law of contrasts” towards the realization of a “state of plastically organized intensity” (“Notes on Contemporary Plastic Life,” 1923, in ibid., p. 25).

Lot Essay Header Image: Fernand Léger in his studio, 1933.  Photograph by Galatine. Photo: Imagno/Getty Images. Artwork: © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

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