When Léger escaped from occupied France and arrived in New York in November 1940, he was immediately struck by the America's "unbelievabley vitality. You must go fast--there is no time to lose" (quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, p. 234). New York was "the most colossal spectacle in the world it is madness to think of employing such a subject artistically. One admires it humbly, and that's all" (ibid., p. 235). At the same time he could not help feeling nostalgic about the qualities of French living that he had left behind, and in this state of mind he was quick to note the differences between the two cultures, and allow these observations to find their way into his paintings. He had conceived the Plongeurs (Divers) series while waiting to sail in Marseille, as he watched a few men and boys jump off a wharf to swim in the harbor. Once in America the subject took on a more hectic and rough and tumble character appropriate to his new surroundings, the result of having witnessed two hundred bathers jostling each other in a public swimming pool in New York City.
In 1944, while Léger was still working on the Plongeurs paintings, he commenced a series of works in on the theme of Les cyclistes. Again the impetus was a particularly American phenomenon: the relative freedom and lack of inhibition he observed among young American women. Léger later described "Girls in sweaters with brilliant colored skin; girls in shorts dressed more like acrobats in a circus than one would ever come across on a Paris street. If I had only seen girls dressed in 'good taste' here I would never have painted my 'Cyclists' series" (quoted in ibid., p. 237).
In the Cycliste series Léger continued to explore his interest in popular recreational activities, and, in fact, he visualized his subject in terms of popular photography. In contrast to the imaginary jumble of bodies in the Plongeurs paintings, Léger here places his figures in a casually ordered grouping; all stand facing to the front, as if posing for a snapshot. Within the series of Cyclistes there are sequences of ink drawings and gouaches showing male, female and co-ed groupings (as seen in the present work). The men are brawny and stylish in their striped polo shirts and Argyle sweaters, and the girls are extremely appealing in their shorts and colorful, form-fitting sweaters.
Léger celebrated the athleticism of the young modern American woman in the painting La grande Julie, 1945 (coll. The Museum of Modern Art, New York), in which his model poses in her brief sport costume, grasping her bicycle and invitingly holding a flower. In Les loisirs, 1944, cycling becomes a family pursuit, as two couples and two children pose by a roadside fence. It is not until the culmination of the series, the wall-size version of Les loisirs, painted in 1948-1949, that Léger revealed a source that had entered his mind at some point during the Cycliste series. In this painting the young woman at lower center holds a tabloid newspaper which the artist had inscribed "Hommage à Louis David", a reference to the leading painter in France during the Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Léger envisioned his Les loisirs as a modern counterpart to David's Mars désarmé par Vénus et les Grâces, painted in 1824 while David was in exile in Brussels following the fall of Napoleon (coll. Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels). In his version Léger combined the high art and classical ideals of an earlier era with the popular leisure culture of his own time, and celebrated the end of the Second World War. Doves symbolize the arrival of peace; the shield of the war god Mars in David's painting becomes the wheel of a bicycle in Léger's idyllic scene.