In the final decade of his career, following his return to France in 1945 from his wartime exile in New York, Léger sought to project his imagery taken from modern life by means of an architectural approach to painting, thus affirming his humanistic and optimistic ideals on a monumental scale. He brought back from America a renewed interest in the landscape, and as Cézanne had undertaken in his great late bather compositions, Léger strove to integrate groups of figures within outdoor environments.
This concept was first apparent in the final series of group figure compositions that Léger painted in the USA, Les cyclistes, 1944-1945 (Bauquier, nos. 1177-1186). He again featured 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 (B., no. 1309). In these pictures Léger laid out many of the themes and methods that he would pursue in subsequent compositions. 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 the scene should resemble a spontaneously posed snap-shot - photography was becoming an increasingly popular pastime with the advent of mass-produced, hand-held cameras. Léger painted L'équipe au repos (B., no. 1411) in 1951, and from this picture he derived the landscape elements for his next great series, La partie de campagne, which he worked on from 1952 to 1954, and includes the present gouache.
Léger completed two large versions of La partie de campagne in 1953, which he annotated 1er état and 2e état. In this pair of canvases the figures are oulined and modelled with black paint, and the forms are entirely filled with local colour. Both versions incorporate similar figure groupings, poses and landscape motifs, with a major difference seen in the left-hand side. In the 1er état a man with his back to the viewer is seen fishing with a boy at his side; in the 2e état 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 composition.
After completing the 1er and 2e états, Léger embarked on a series of studies and variations on the partie de campagne theme in which he divested his subjects of their local colour and eliminated all modelling, as seen here. The pictorial elements are consequently flatter and the design is more overtly graphic, having been rendered entirely in black contours on a white ground, broken up by irregular geometric planes of pure colour. In this way Léger placed painting in an architectural context, using the broad swathes of colour to create a more visually exciting wall surface.
The present study for La partie de campagne closely resembles the final monumental composition in this series, completed in 1954 (fig. 1). This series constitutes Léger's hommage to the eighteenth century fête champêtre in French painting, as typified by the paintings of Antoine Watteau. Notwithstanding the impact of modern industry and accelerating social change on people's lives, Léger sought to demonstrate that the humanistic ideals and aspirations that guide society essentially remain timeless. 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. This friendly vision of modern living, with people situated between the hope of technology on one hand and the comforts of nature on the other, was Léger's valedictory statement, in which he affirmed his long-held belief in the constructive role of mechanical elements in modern life.