The present painting is one of a group of four complete oil studies for one of Léger's most important works, Le grand déjeuner of 1921 (fig. 1). The artist himself numbered Le grand déjeuner among the three greatest pictures of his entire career, and critics have lauded the canvas as "one of his most intriguing and enigmatic works" and "the central masterpiece of this period" (R. Herbert, Léger's Le grand déjeuner, exh. cat., Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, 1980, pp. 9 and 27). The painting also marks a critical turning point in Léger's work. In the years immediately following World War I, the artist had remained true to the brash, anti-order convictions of his early years, rendering scenes of modern urban life in a fragmented and dynamic way (fig. 2). In 1920, however, under mounting pressure from Ozenfant, Le Corbusier, and other members of the Parisian avant-garde to classicize his art, Léger began to create more calm and rigorously ordered compositions, consisting of monumental figures positioned within a stable architecture of flat planes. Le grand déjeuner represents Léger's first major statement of this new formal order, which is at once timeless and thoroughly modern. Discussing this transition in Léger's art, Christopher Green has written:
Léger was at the edge of a sudden and apparently complete change of stance. He had as a painter turned away from his 'renaissance of the subject' openly to reinstate the conventional subject matter of classicism: the nude and the pastoral landscape. Moreover, he had turned away from a brutal pursuit of disintegration at the expense of classical clarity for a more measured pursuit of clear-cut figurative and landscape statements, where the qualities of balance and precision were at a premium. Within a very short time he had moved from conspicuous isolation to a deep and committed involvement in the 'call to order' introduced by the crystal Cubists, and to an emphatically post-war art (Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 191).
The tightly organized composition of Le grand déjeuner evolved slowly over the course of two years, as Léger experimented in more than a dozen paintings and drawings with various poses and combinations of motifs. The earliest works in the sequence are a cluster of paintings from 1920 that depict massive female nudes, either singly or in pairs, set against an architectonic background of rectilinear elements. Next, Léger made two groups of studies that explicitly anticipate the left and right sides of the final painting. The left-hand fragments depict two female nudes, one standing and one reclining, with a table-top still-life in the foreground, while the right-hand fragments explore the figure of a seated woman holding a book and a cup of tea (B. 303-304). According to the chronology proposed by Robert Herbert, Léger then executed an elaborate pencil study for Le grand déjeuner, as a way of merging the two halves of the composition into a unified scene (fig. 3). This work is closer to the final painting in many details of pose and arrangement than either of the fragments, and its more three-dimensional rendering creates the environment of a single room, complete with a window in the upper left corner, a framed painting in the center, and a view into another room at the right rear. There is a continuous floor plane and a nearly continuous horizontal form, like a long sofa, that unites the three figures.
Following this preparatory drawing, Léger embarked upon a series of four large-scale oil studies for Le grand déjeuner, subtly altering the poses of the figures and supplanting anecdotal detail with more rigorous geometry. The present canvas, which is the only one of these studies to employ a purely grisaille palette, is probably the first or second of the four. It was made around the same time as a version in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which is extremely close in both composition and detail (B., no. 194), and was followed by B., no. 309 (Private Collection, New York) and the slightly larger TIPetit déjeuner (B., no. 310; sold, Christie's, New York, 5 November 1991, lot 10). The final painting was completed by the fall of 1921 and exhibited at the Paris Salon d'Automne. In the spring of 1922, Léger took the canvas back from his dealer, Léonce Rosenberg, and reworked it slightly in order to "strengthen the contrasts," as he later told Alfred Barr, the curator of The Museum of Modern Art (quoted in R. Herbert, op. cit., p. 71).
Both the studies for Le grand déjeuner and the final painting thrive on a series of carefully articulated contrasts. In purely formal terms, the works constitute a balance of opposing elements: straight versus curved, soft versus hard, flat versus rounded, vertical versus horizontal, and so on. Writing in 1923, Léger explained, "I apply the law of plastic contrasts. I group contrary values together: flat surfaces opposed to modeled surfaces, volumetric figures opposed to the flat façades of houses; molded volumes of plumes of smoke opposed to active surfaces of architecture, pure, flat tones opposed to gray, modulated tones or the reverse" (quoted in ibid., p. 69). In Le grand déjeuner, as in most other works by Léger, this opposition of component elements is not merely a play of formal means, but a visual expression of potent thematic tensions. Unlike Picasso's major neoclassical painting of the same year, Trois femmes à la fontaine, in which a triad of monumental female figures in antique costume is depicted in a broadly mythologizing environment, the timeless nudes of Le grand déjeuner are positioned in a resolutely contemporary setting: a stylish domestic interior, rendered as a series of interlocking, architectonic planes. Moreover, despite the erotic overtones of the painting's motif, Léger's three nudes have been relentlessly desensualized. They seem less like flesh-and-blood women than classical marble statues, incongruously (and somewhat humorously) introduced into a modern breakfast room. Finally, the firm geometry and cool, tonal modeling of the figures overtly synthesizes both the classicizing tradition of Poussin, David, and Ingres, and the machine aesthetic of the modern world. Discussing the intricate framework of contradictions that underlies Le grand déjeuner, Robert Herbert concludes:
The geometry of Léger's painting, embracing the ethic of the new machine world, speaks for the 'momentary,' but in its ties with the disciplined forms of classical art, it also speaks for the 'eternal.' It seems paradoxical that the assertive geometry of Léger's painting can stand for both modern technology and for the continuity of classical art, yet if we assess the nudes in Le grand déjeuner in these terms, the mechanism whereby he brings these opposing natures together becomes clear. His nudes have been likened to classical sculpture, and to the controlled forms we associate with Poussin, David, Ingres, Seurat, or Maillol. On the other hand--and here he finds his distance from the penetrating nostalgia of Picasso's Three Women at the Spring--his women have an unnatural smoothness, a sense of finish that likens them to machines, or to robots, hybrid forms of man and machine. The nude women in Le grand déjeuner are a calming and reassuring presence, but they startle us. They are like art objects from the past, suddenly deposited in this modern environment of noisy and angular geometry. Like Phidias at the time of the Peloponnesian wars or David on the eve of the French Revolution, Léger responded to the tensions of his society by a severely controlled art, an art whose greatness lies in stretching taut, almost to the breaking point, forms and ideas that are suspended between the poles of calmness and frenzy, objectivity and subjectivity, harshness and softness. 'I profoundly admire my epoch,' Léger wrote in 1925. 'It is hard and sharp, but with its immense senses it sees clearly and always wants to see more clearly, whatever may happen. Too bad for those with weak eyes' (ibid., pp. 31 and 36).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Le grand déjeuner, 1921. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 23662308
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, La ville, 1919-1920. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE 23662292
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Etude pour "Le grand déjeuner", 1920. Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo. BARCODE 23662278