Having served as a sapper and stretcher-bearer in the some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, during which he had already been wounded once, Fernand Léger spent most of the final year of the conflict convalescing from rheumatism in various military hospitals. He was eager to resume painting, which for the past three years he could only attempt while on brief periods of leave from the front. Picasso and Gris, who as Spanish nationals were not required to do military service, had been hard at work, and were already forging a new classicism that would transform the mentalité of post-war painting. Léger corresponded with Léonce Rosenberg, the Paris dealer who had made arrangements to represent the leading cubist painters in the absence of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who as an enemy alien had been forced into Swiss exile for the duration of the conflict. Léger wrote to Rosenberg in January 1918: "If I get out [of the army] I'll be able to paint! I'll be able to work! My horizon stops there, it's the best thing that I know" (quoted in D. Kosinki, ed., Férnand Léger 1911-1924: The Rhythm of Modern Life, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel, 1994, p. 68).
Léger was finally discharged from the army in June 1918; the war went on for another five months before the armistice was signed. In August Léger entered into an exclusive contract with Rosenberg; the artist calculated that the arrangement would bring him about 20,000-25,000 francs annually, more than enough to sustain him in the post-war period. In February 1919, Rosenberg gave Léger the painter's first solo exhibition at his Galerie de l'Effort Moderne on the rue de la Baume. Léger's friend the poet Blaise Cendrars, who lost his right arm in the war, read his verse, and the composer-pianist Erik Satie performed his eccentric music at the opening reception.
The mechanization of war, and the tremendous slaughter that it had caused, had been a traumatic experience for those who had participated in the recent conflict, and left its indelible mark on a generation of artists. It attests to Léger's resolve as an artist, as well as to the fortitude and resilience of his personality, that he did not allow the horror of his war experiences to divert him from the path he had taken prior to 1914, and that he remained fully committed to employing modern and mechanical elements to pictorial ends. He wrote to Rosenberg in 1918: "As soon as I was freed, I started to profit from those difficult years; I've reached a decision, and I'm modeling in pure local color and on a large scale without making any concessions. The war made me what I am, I'm not afraid to say so" (quoted in ibid.).
The first major theme that Léger addressed as he resumed painting full-time was the circus, which figured in seven paintings done in 1918. Léger intended that this series, set in the famous Cirque Médrano of Montmartre, celebrate the end of the war, by marking a return to the life-affirming enjoyment of ordinary peacetime spectacle and entertainment (fig. 1). In each of these paintings the artist fully integrated the figure within a geometrically structured environment, recalling his treatment of figure and background in the paintings done immediately prior to the outbreak of the war. In paintings done in late 1918 and into 1919, however, Léger relegated the figure to a secondary and almost incidental role as he placed increasing emphasis on surrounding architectural elements. The artist began to organize his compositions as if they were still-lifes. Objects inspired by machinery and commercially manufactured wares predominated, and his fascination with the dynamic pictorial potential of such éléments mécaniques eventually led him to shunt the figure aside altogether. Le moteur (fig. 2), based on propeller and engine forms, set in a state of heroic, monumental equilibrium, welcomed the triumph of the machine in modern life, and heralded a new mechanical aesthetic in painting.
Léger felt entirely at home in the depersonalized landscape of urban architecture or machine-derived motifs. Other artists, however, roundly criticized him, and his dealer Rosenberg had observed how his canvases stood apart in his gallery group exhibitions. Léger wrote in response: "The situation at the present moment is tragic enough. The artist is in competition with the useful object, which is sometimes beautiful. Or at least fascinating. He must create as well or better. Geometric relationships, volumes, lines, and colored surfaces (airplanes, automobiles, farm machinery, all commercial objects, etc.) can be beautiful; that is absolutely indisputable. We live in a geometric world, it is undeniable, and also in a state of frequent contrasts. I am consistent with my own time, and when all is said and done, the result is what counts" (from "Notes on the Mechanical Element," in E.F. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting by Fernand Léger, New York, 1973, pp. 29 and 30).
Around this time the adherents of Cubism, such as Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger and Gino Severini, as well as the practitioners of the new Purist movement, led by its founders Amadée Ozenfant and Charles Jeanneret (later called Le Corbusier), had declared their rappel à ordre, ("call to order") for a new rationalist humanism in painting. It amounted to a "conservative cultural agenda, deeply felt by avant-garde artists, who were urged to forego their formal experiments in favor of overcoming the trauma of the war" (A.C. Danto, "Fernand Léger", The Madonna of the Future, New York, 2000, p. 301). The avant-garde dialectic was usually driven by the excitement of brinksmanship, in which painters took formal experimentation to its outermost acceptable limit. But at the moment when such novelty threatened to go beyond the pale, external forces would exert themselves and keep such errant formalism in check. While these pressures did not necessarily compel the artist to retrace his steps and adopt a retrograde response, they might urge him to investigate an antithetical approach by which he might find resolution to these issues.
Léger had experienced similar tensions in 1914, while working on his landmark series of Contrastes de formes. The absolute suppression of the figure and object in these celebrated paintings was not a pictorial strategy that Léger found tenable for very long; the artist was too wedded to his love of modern life in all its mundane manifestations to tolerate non-representational painting as a final and definitive state of the art. The result, just before the war was Léger's reassertion of the figure, as seen in La femme en rouge et vert (fig. 3), in which the female subject, which likely refers to his companion Jeanne Lohy, is fully decipherable within the context of its formal elements and architectural setting. At the end of 1919, near the conclusion of the decade during which the Great War had taken its ghastly toll, Léger found himself at a similar crossroads, and again felt pressures, both internally and from without, that likewise guided him back to giving the figure a pre-eminent place in his art. Christopher Green described Léger's new tack: "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" (P. G., Léger and the Avant-garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 191),
The first painting to hint at this transformation was La mère et enfant, 1919 (Bauquier, no. 192), in which a mother holds a small child in her arms. The present picture was probably painted soon after; using a slightly taller format, Léger introduced a second woman, probably a relative or friend, as well as a greater variety of still-life objects into the composition. On December 2, 1919 Léger married Jeanne Lohy, whom he had known for a half-dozen years. Léger was then 38 years old, and Jeanne was 24. The artist was now settled and had a good income; perhaps it was time to consider starting a family, and these paintings may reflect the couple's desire for a conventional domestic life, aspirations that the recent war had made impossible until now.
In contrast to the paintings in Léger's La Ville series and related urban compositions of 1919-1920 (Bauquier, nos. 157-165, and 255-258), the figure is absolutely central in the two Mère et enfant paintings. Léger re-affirmed in these softly conceived maternal subjects the human form as the primary focus in the figure-ground dualism, turning to conventions that had been the basis of pictorial composition in European art since the Renaissance. In order to differentiate the figures from the background, Léger continued to rely on contrasts of form, but not so abrupt or dissonant as in the mechanical compositions, here using rounded forms modeled in graded local color, which sets them off against a shallow and geometrically constructed interior space. "I oppose curves to straight lines, flat surfaces to molded forms, pure local colors to nuances of gray. These initial plastic forms are either superimposed on objective elements or not; it makes no difference to me. There is only a question of variety" (from "Notes on Contemporary Plastic Life," published in 1923, reprinted in E.F. Fry, op. cit., p. 25). The background in the two Mère et enfant paintings is clearly a grid composed of vertical and horizontal elements. Léger adapted this structural device from the recent paintings of Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg and Bart van der Leck, the De Stijl artists based in Amsterdam, who, influenced by the theories concerning repetitive forms of the architect J.J.P. Oud, introduced the grid into their compositions in 1917-1918. De Stijl artists had dispensed with the human form altogether, and their work had become entirely non-representational in their pursuit of an idealist agenda. Léger used the grid to a different end, however, making it the armature of his new humanist, figure-oriented vision of modern life.
Around the time Léger painted the two Mère en enfant pictures, he worked on the first version of Le petit déjeuner, 1919 (Bauquier, no. 194; coll. Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Maslon, partial gift to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), which treats the figure, still-life elements and their interior setting in much the same manner. Léger returned to petit and grand déjeuner theme in three great pictures done in 1921 (Bauquier, nos. 309-311; fig. 4). These masterpieces certainly represent the high-water mark of Léger's post-war classicism, a period that the déjeuner theme brackets at both inception and culmination. Crucial to the artist's successful realization of this warmly humanistic and classically balanced vision of modern life are the essential pictorial ideas, and a newly accessible and expressive conception of the figure, that first became manifest in Les deux femmes à l'enfant.
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Les deux acrobats, 1918
Christie's, New York, 6 November 2002
©c 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Le moteur, 1918. Christie's, New York, 6 November 2001
©c 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, La femme en rouge et vert, 1914. Christie's New York, 4 November 2003
©c 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Le petit déjeuner, 1921,
Christie's, New York, 5 November 1991
©c 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris Christie's, New York, 5 November 1991