In the late 1940s Léger returned to one of his favourite subjects, the circus, and explored it relentlessly through many variations. The steady, developmental study of this theme would finally lead to his masterpiece La Grande Parade, état définif, 1954, now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (fig. 1). The monumental canvas sums up his life-long artistic pursuit of depicting men and women at leisure, existing in a joyous state of freedom and play. In 1954, Léger presented La Grande Parade, Etat definif at the Maison de la Pensée Française, alongside finished variants, including the present gouache.
La Grande Parade sur Fond Jaune, dated 1953, shows one stage in the painstaking process by which Léger developed the themes in La Grande Parade. In the present work, only the colour yellow is used, the monochromatic background tightens the composition as well as brightens it up. Léger completed at least three versions of this subject in yellow, and several with red backgrounds. Commenting on his working methods, he admitted 'I worked on La Grande Parade for two years. I study everything ponderously. I work very slowly indeed. I am unable to improvise. The more I watch myself, the more I see that I am a classic. I do a long preparatory work. First I do a quantity of drawings, then I do gouaches, and lastly I pass on to the canvas; but when I tackle that I have 80 percent assurance. I know where I am going'.
In another context he added 'If I have drawn circus people, acrobats, clowns, jugglers, it is because I have taken an interest in their work for thirty years. Ever since I designed Cubist costumes for the Fratellini, I did a quantity of drawings and studies for La Grande Parade. For I am a classic: if my first drawings are off the cuff, I am aware of the media that I shall employ... The slightest transformation was long pondered and worked up with the help of new drawings. A local alteration often involved changing the entire composition because it affected the balance of the whole. In the first version the colour exactly fitted the forms. In the definitive version one can see what force, what vitality is achieved by using colour on its own.' (cf. W. Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, p. 166).
Gouaches from the La Grande Parade series are held in several celebrated collections including the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, the Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot, and the Collection Aimé Maeght, Paris.
(fig. 1) F. Léger, The Great Parade (definitive state), 1954, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.