This painting will be included in the forthcoming volume IX of the Léger catalogue raisonné to be published by Maeght Editions.
In the final decade of his career, following his return to France in 1945 from his wartime exile in New York, "Léger was absorbed in endeavouring to create a language in which a balance could be established between familiar imagery, an architectural function of painting, and themes stressing the permanence of man" (P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 228). He brought back from America a renewed interest in the landscape (see lots 348 and lot 351), and as Cézanne had undertaken in his great late bather compositions, Léger strove to integrate groups of figures into outdoor environments. This concept is first apparent in the final series of group figure compositions that Léger painted in the United States, Les cyclistes, 1944-1945 (Bauquier, nos. 1177- 1186), featuring four young female riders.
Léger continued to feature the cyclist theme in his series Le loisirs, hommage à David, the first major version of which was begun in New York in 1944 and completed in Paris in 1949 (Bauquier, no. 1309). In this picture Léger laid out many of the themes and methods that he would pursue in subsequent compositions. The figure group is co-ed this time, and Léger contrasts the idea of men and work (represented by the men's suited attire) with relaxation and leisure pursuits (the casually attired women). The figures are arranged frontally and the entire group stands within a relatively shallow space in the foreground of the landscape, with the intention that it should resemble a spontaneously posed snap-shot; photography was becoming increasingly popular pastime with the advent of mass-produced, hand-held cameras. The subtitle Hommage à David relates the composition to a large late painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), revealing unexpected correspondences between David's use of classical mythology and Léger's treatment of accoutrements representing modern leisure. Léger now declared his intent to measure his achievement in the context of the great French painters of the past, just as Picasso would do in his appropriation of works of Velázquez, Rembrandt, Ingres, Delacroix and Degas during his own late career.
Léger's next major series was his paean to labor and socialism, Les constructeurs, painted in 1950-1951 (Bauquier, nos. 1391-1410). Here he deals with an entirely masculine work-oriented world, in contrast to the young women in Les cyclistes. He does so again in the painting L'équipe au repos, 1951 (Bauquier, no. 1411), from which he derived landscape elements for his next great series, La partie de campagne, painted in 1952-1954, which includes the present work.
La partie de campagne exists in two large versions, 1er etat and 2e etat, both dated 1953 and in private collections, in which the figures are outlined and modeled with black paint, and the forms are entirely filled with local color, which is varied from one version to the next. Both versions incorporate the same figure groupings, poses, and landscape motifs, with a major difference seen in the left-hand side. In the 1er etat a man with his back to the viewer is seen fishing with a boy at his side; in the 2e etat he is similarly posed, but is instead seen lifting the hood of his car and inspecting the engine, with the boy now absent, as seen in the present version.
After completing the 1er et 2e etats, Léger embarked on a series of variations of the Partie de campagne theme in which the earlier compositions have been drained of their local color, and all modeling eliminated. The imagery is consequently flatter and the design more graphic and reductionistic, having been rendered entirely in black contours on white, among which Léger has inserted irregular geometric planes of pure color. The effect is essentially architectural, taking the flatness of the wall and breaking it up to create more visually exciting surface. Léger wrote in 1938, "Color can enter into play with a surprising and active force without any need to incorporate instructive or sentimental elements. A wall can be destroyed by the application of pure colors. A wall can made to advance or recede, to become visually mobile. All this with color" ("Color in the World", in E.F. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting by Fernand Léger, New York, 1973, p. 123). In this grand pictorial manner Léger stresses the basic elements of painting that he developed in his celebrated Contrastes de formes series of 1913-1914, "the simultaneous ordering of three plastic components: Lines, Forms and Colors" ("The Origins of Painting," quoted in ibid., p. 4).
The present version of La partie de campagne closely resembles the final monumental composition in this series, completed in 1954 (coll. Fondation Maeght, St-Paul-de-Vence). This series constitutes Léger's homage to the 18th century fête champêtre in French painting, as typified by the paintings of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Léger aims to demonstrate that from century to century the humanistic ideals in society remain the same, even if the class structure changes, and notwithstanding the imposition of modern industrial and mechanical elements on people's lives. Indeed, the automobile is the key to this scene, for presumably it has broken down, and as the driver struggles to repair it, the other members of his party relax and sunbathe while they wait. It is a remarkably friendly vision of people situated between technology on one hand and nature on the other, and serves as Léger's valedictory statement resolving his life-long fascination with the impact of mechanization on the lives of men and women in the modern world. This pastoral vision is all the more startling and unexpected in the context of the Cold War, with its ever present threat of nuclear annihilation, and reflects Léger's conviction--one that he held while trying to survive on the killing fields of the First World War, and no less now--that people will ultimately find ways to endure, prosper, and enjoy the lives that are granted them.