In Les femmes au perroquet Léger looked back to his masterwork of the pre-war period, Composition au perroquet, 1935-1939 (Bauquier, no. 881; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris). In that monumental, mural-size painting Léger created the paradigm for the pictorial conception that would take precedence in his art for the remainder of his career, and see fruition in his great post-war compositions. Visual contrasts in terms of imagery, forms and color would henceforth interact on a huge scale. His figure subjects would be active and life-affirming, and participate in a new "outdoors" reality. Léger wrote to a friend in 1939: "We have all achieved a reality, an indoor reality--but there is perhaps another one possible, more outdoors... The new thing in this type of big picture is an intensity ten times greater than its predecessors. We can get this intensity by the application of contrasts--pure tones and groupings of form... That is the solution for the big picture" (quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 145).
The two parrots are among the smallest of the elements in the 1935-1939 composition--in fact, Léger added them at the last minute to serve as color accents and points of visual focus. Their unexpected presence, however, had the effect of dominating the picture, to which they gave its title. Léger used the parrot motif again in two large compositions he painted following his arrival in New York: La femme au perroquet, 1941, and Les deux femmes au perroquet, 1942 (Bauquier, nos. 1087 and 1088, respectively). From the latter, Léger borrowed the poses of the two women and the parrot, as well as the tree-trunk and leaf forms, and reprised them in the present watercolor. He placed them in an extensive and layered horizontal landscape format, in which he extended the right-hand side to include a fence, flowers and a dove.
This painting appears to have been the initial idea or study for a lithograph (Saphire, no. 119) and a large ceramic relief, both also titled Les femmes au perroquet, which Léger executed in 1952. In these final versions of the composition, Léger eliminated the flowering plant and dove from the right side, and in their place substituted a third girl, who sits on the fence, holding an aster-like flower. The ceramic relief Les femmes au perroquet was Léger's first large-scale work in this medium. In works of this kind, Léger ultimately fulfilled his aspirations for "the big picture." The symbol of the parrot, which may have possessed some private meaning for the artist, remained a constant motif in this search. Léger wrote that his polychrome sculpture "marks a very definite evolution toward the goal of integration with architecture. This has been a preoccupation with me from the beginning, but I commenced gradually, using my easel painting as a point of departure. Now a mural art can be defined, with all its possibilities; a static or dynamic role; its uses for either the exterior or interior of buildings" (quoted in P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 246).
Yvonne Zervos, née Marion, the first owner of this painting, was the wife of Christian Zervos, who edited and published the journal Cahiers d'Art from 1926 to 1970. He assembled the primary reference catalogue of the work of Pablo Picasso, published in 33 volumes, and wrote a monograph on Léger's work in 1952. Mme Zervos ran an art gallery next to her husband's office until 1939 when she moved to larger quarters and called her space Galerie Mai.