Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
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Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Le remorqueur

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Le remorqueur
signed with the initials and dated 'FL 17' (lower right)
gouache, watercolour, wash and pencil on paper
6½ x 9¼ in. (16.8 x 23.4 cm.)
Executed in 1917
The artist's estate (no. G-429).
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1969.
W. Schmalenbach, Léger, Paris & New York, 1988, no. 16.
G. Néret, Fernand Léger, Paris, 1990, no. 88.
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Fernand Léger, 1881-1955, June - October 1956, no. 183 (illustrated p. 396).
Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Fernand Léger, Gemälde, Gouachen, Zeichnungen, June - September 1967, no. 31.
Tokyo, Seibu Gallery, Rétrospective Fernand Léger, March - April 1972, no. 7; this exhibition later travelled to Nagoya, Meitetsu Gallery, April 1972; and Fukuoka, Cultural Center, May 1972.
Madrid, Fundación Juan March, Fernand Léger, 1983, no. 71.
Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Fernand Léger, Oeuvres sur papier, April - June 1989, no. 46.
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Fernand Léger, November 1989 - February 1990, no. 69.
Villeneuve d'Ascq, Musée d'Art Moderne, Fernand Léger, March - June 1990, no. 76.
Paris, Galerie Berggruen & Cie, Fernand Léger, gouaches, aquarelles et dessins, October - November 1996, no. 5 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

Léger served on the front lines during the First World War, first as a sapper and then as a stretcher-bearer. He was slightly wounded and later gassed. He painted whenever he could obtain leave to Paris, and it was on one such occasion in September 1917 that he fell seriously ill with rheumatism. He spent the following months in military hospitals, and was finally diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. During this period he painted his wartime masterwork, La partie de cartes (Bauquier, no. 102, Rijksmuseum Kröller Müller, Otterloo), which he inscribed on the reverse 'fait à Paris en convalescence.' He was invalided out of the service in June 1918, five months before the signing of the Armistice. He immediately signed an exclusive contract with Léonce Rosenberg, who had become the leading dealer for the Cubists during the war, and was finally able to resume painting full-time.

Léger executed the present watercolour around the time he was completing La partie de cartes. This was his first rendering of a tugboat, which appealed to him as a symbol that united aspects of urban and marine commerce. He returned to this subject during the following year in two related oil paintings, Le remorqueur rose (B., no. 129; fig. 1) and Le remorqueur - état définitif (B., 130; private collection). He derived the central curvilinear forms from the boat's smokestack and engine propellers, which he set against a rectilinear backdrop of city buildings and signs; he included a figure of a dock worker at lower left.

Léger's wartime experiences, in which he witnessed the wholesale carnage of mechanised slaughter first-hand, did not deter him from returning to the cylindrical, machine-inspired elements that he had introduced into his celebrated pre-war contrastes de formes paintings. These forms now shed their generalised and abstract character and took on a more descriptive and material specificity. Léger understood the impact of the war as an irrefutable sign that society had broken with old values, and the emergence of a new, modern reality was at hand. He sought to counter the increasingly conservative and classical ideals of the post-war Paris avant-garde with his own message of new subjects drawn from the reality of modern life, represented in a dissonant and dynamic pictorial language. He wrote to his pre-war dealer D.-H. Kahnweiler, still living in Swiss exile, in December 1919: 'I have used mechanical elements a lot in my pictures these last two years; my present method is adapting itself to this, and I find in it an element of variety and intensity. The modern way of life is full of such elements for us; we must know how to use them. Every age brings with it some new elements which should serve us; the great difficulty is to translate them into plastic terms...' (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger, Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 45).

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