Fernand Léger as he poses in front of several of his paintings, New York, 7 October 1941. Artwork © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018. Photo Arnold NewmanGetty Images

Fernand Léger: the life and art of a Modernist master

An introduction to the shifting styles of the pioneering French artist, illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

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  • Embracing a range of artistic styles, Léger became one of Modernism’s most important practitioners

Born in 1881 into a cattle-farming family in Normandy, Fernand Léger went on to become one of the most important artists of the early 20th century. He was associated with a host of avant-garde styles — from Cubism and Futurism to Purism and de Stijl — but never too closely, always maintaining his artistic individuality.

Paintings such as The Card Players (1917), The City (1919) and Le grand déjeuner from 1921 are now universally regarded as masterpieces of Modernism.

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  • Léger moved from Cubist to ‘Tubist’...

Among his peers, only Pablo Picasso could match Léger’s versatility, curiosity and outright refusal to stand still. After moving to Paris at the turn of the century, he developed an idiosyncratic form of Cubism, combining that movement’s analytical dissection of form with a vocabulary of curved shapes such as cylinders, spheres and cones. The art critic Louis Vauxcelles dubbed this work ‘Tubist’; it was Léger’s first mature style.

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  • ...and on to abstraction

In the years immediately preceding the First World War, Léger’s practice moved increasingly towards abstraction. His work in this style is considered by some to have peaked in 1913 with Contraste de Formes. Described as ‘a punch to the solar plexus’ by Conor Jordan, Christie’s Deputy Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art, the work realised a world auction record for the artist when it sold for $70,062,500 at Christie’s in New York in November 2017.

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  • Léger’s wartime experiences influenced the development of a ‘mechanical’ aesthetic

In the First World War, Léger served as a sapper in the engineering corps, and was posted to Argonne and Verdun. He claimed to be ‘utterly dazzled by the breech of a 75 millimetre gun’, as well as by the tanks, planes and other technological innovations he was brought into contact with.

In due course Léger’s art would come to reflect this influence, taking on an increasingly machine-like aesthetic (industrial and mechanical forms in city settings were frequent subjects at this time). According to art critic John Russell, Léger ‘may well be the only painter who made major art (as distinct from arresting illustration) out of World War I’.

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  • Eventually, though, Léger returned to figuration

Fast forward to the 1920s, and Léger started to restore figures to his imagery, rendering his scenes a little gentler and more amiable. He often chose to focus on women and families in domestic settings — a prime example being the three reclining nudes drinking tea or coffee in Le grand déjeuner, from 1921. Though set in a chic, contemporary apartment, the figures boast simplified volumes that (typical of Léger in this period) hark back to neoclassicism.

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  • Léger retained his modern aesthetic even as he drew from the art-historical canon

It is rare to sell one masterwork from the 1920s in a season but in 2018 Christie’s offered two, with the inclusion of Les trois femmes au bouquet (1922), another classic depiction of women in a domestic interior that saw Léger choosing to meld tradition with modernity.

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  • The 1930s was both an experimental and an extremely productive decade for Léger

In 1931 Léger made the first of three trips to the United States, having been commissioned to decorate the New York apartment of Nelson Rockefeller. He returned in 1935 and 1938 to complete a similar project for Wallace K. Harrison’s Consolidated Edison Building at the 1939-40 World’s Fair.

In 1932 he resumed teaching at the Académie Moderne, a free school he had co-founded with Amédée Ozenfant in 1924. In 1935, just four years after his initial visit, he was given a major show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The latter half of the decade saw the completion of the monumental mural paintings Adam and Eve and Composition aux deux perroquets, a work he considered to be one of his most important. He also produced murals for expositions in Brussels and Paris, and set and costume designs for the Paris Opera.

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  • Fernand Léger was a painter with a definite social agenda

Léger’s murals of the late 1930s were inspired by his belief that modern art could be an agent of change, a means of communicating an optimistic vision of a forward-looking socialist society.

In 1935 a coalition of leftist and centrist parties, organised labour and intellectuals formed the Front Populaire in France. Léger believed this represented the dawn of a new and potentially transformational social consciousness — precisely the opportunity that would allow him to bring modern art out of the studio and into the everyday sensibility of the public.

He spent the war in America, where he made a series of paintings inspired by the neon lights of New York. Returning to France in December 1945, he joined the French Communist Party alongside Picasso. The optimism Léger felt at returning to his homeland was reflected in his painting — there is an easygoing vitality and an athletic physicality in the artist’s late works.

Léger believed that an essential part of peacetime reconstruction was to bring a sense of enjoyment to the lives of citizens from all walks of life, and, for him, the circus represented the public spectacle par excellence — a genuine art of the people. His final masterwork, La Grande parade, état définitif (1954) capped a long line of circus scenes that he executed throughout his career.

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  • Art from two periods of his career is especially sought-after

Demand for Léger’s work is particularly robust for pieces executed during two periods of his career: just before the First World War, and works featuring female figures from the early 1920s.

The works from before the War — both Cubist and those moving beyond Cubism — have always done well at auction, with early 1920s pieces now widely considered in the same rank.

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  • Léger is well-represented in exhibitions

Beyond the auction room, Léger’s unique style has been on view in a number of recent museum shows: in Brussels in 2018, a retrospective of his work went on display at BOZAR, while a second retrospective went to Tate Liverpool in November of the same year.

Fernand Léger and the roofs of Paris at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands runs until 2 April 2023.