Léger first came into contact with the Cubist paintings of Braque and Picasso at Kahnweiler's gallery in 1910. Although they made a powerful impression, and encouraged Léger to divest his work of the last vestiges of Impressionist influence, Léger was reluctant to make a full commitment to Cubism. He was closer to many of the artists in the group surrounding the Villon brothers, including painters as diverse as Delaunay and Laurencin, which in 1912 contributed to the Section d'Or exhibition. Léger's initial encounter with Cubism led him to assess the work of Cézanne more closely. Léger was drawn to Cézanne's sensitivity to contrasts of form, and to the expressionist tendency in Cézanne's late paintings, in which the structure of the compositions appears to have been cut loose from the moorings of traditional pictorial language.
By the time Léger exhibited his first major painting, Les nus dans la fôret, at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911, he had already begun a series of urban landscapes depicting the rooftops of Paris as seen from his window on the rue de l'Ancienne Comédie. In 1914 Léger recounted the formal impetus behind this series:
I take the visual effects of smoke rising round and curling between the houses... In this you have the best possible examples in your search for multiple effects of intensity. Accentuate those curves with the greatest possible variety without losing their unity: frame them in relation to the hard and dry area of the houses, dead surfaces which will come alive because they will be colored differently to the central mass and are in opposition to lively forms. You will obtain the maximum effect. (quoted in P. de Francis, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 15)
Léger's Les toits series constitutes a close parallel to the contemporaneous Tour Eiffel and Fenêtres series of Delaunay, with whom Léger shared a close mutual friend, the poet Blaise Cendrars. When Guillaume Apollinaire, another poet who served as theoretician to the painters of the Paris avant-garde, published his Les peintures cubistes in 1913, he classified Léger with Delaunay and the Orphists because of Léger's feeling for color. In reality, however, Léger's painting differs greatly from that of Delaunay. Whereas Delaunay created form through his perception of light and the rhythm of color, which led him briefly to non-objective painting in 1912 and 1913, Léger was chiefly interested in utilizing contrasts of form as a means of representing a dynamic vision of space, in which color plays a decisive constructive role. While Léger's painting may appear increasingly abstract, he never abandoned the imagery which served as his inspiration.
Whether he is depicting the city landscape, as seen here, or the human figure, as in La noce, 1910-1911 (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris), or La femme en bleu, 1912 (Kunstsammlung, Basel), Léger's formal vocabulary is remarkably consistent during this period, juxtaposing hard, angular shapes with softer, rounded forms. Coming near the end of this sequence, the present work is characterized by a masterly distillation of these basic forms and their inherent contrasts, and shows the artist on the verge of embarking upon his celebrated series of Contrastes de formes, painted in 1913 and 1914, in which he takes this formal vocabulary to its most expressive and non-figurative outer limit.