This gouache is related to four paintings that Léger completed in 1919-1920, in which he depicted a still life set on a table within an interior, with a female figure standing in attendance. The first version is La table rouge, 1919 (Bauquier, no.171; private collection). This painting and others that Léger executed at the end of the 'teens marked the re-introduction of the figure into his compositions, in which mechanical elements had previously predominated. The subject of the still life was among the most traditional that Léger had featured since the end of the war, and represent in part his response to the postwar rappel à l'ordre - the 'call to order'- a rallying cry coined by Jean Cocteau to inspire a return to classical and humanist values in the arts. Léger later commented, 'I needed a rest, to breathe a little. After the dynamism of the mechanical phase, I felt as it were a need for the static quality of the large forms that were to follow. Earlier, I had broken up the human body. Now I began to put it together again, to find the face again. Since then I have always used the human form. Later it developed, slowly, toward a more realistic, less schematic representation' (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger, Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47). Indeed, the figure during this transitional phase was usually little more than a bystander, one plastic element among many - a small cog in the overall pictorial mechanism of the composition.
Léger painted a second version of La table rouge in 1920 (B., no. 196; the Art Institute of Chicago). Cassou and Leymarie illustrate two related gouaches, both dated 1920 (ibid., p. 65, nos. 73 and 74) Léger then proceeded to execute two more paintings on this theme, perhaps using these gouaches as a starting point, in which he eliminated some of the details and simplified the forms, thus giving the composition a flatter appearance overall: Nature morte, ler état (B., no.197) and Nature morte, état définitif (B., 198; fig. 1). This process indicated his interest in the Purist aesthetic of balance and order that Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier) had advocated; indeed, the still life was the signal Purist subject. Léger was also closely following developments in Die Stijl, the movement in Holland led by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, whose writings Léger's dealer Léonce Rosenberg had published in Paris in 1920. Léger increasingly employed a grid-like structure of vertical and horizontal lines to anchor the various elements in his compositions.
The present gouache appears to have been done following the first version of Nature morte, in preparation for the état définitif (fig. 1). In the earlier version the figure of the woman, an important element in the two La table rouge pictures, is barely implied, consisting of only a small circle hovering over three vertical lines, seen (as in the two versions of La table rouge) on the left side. In the present gouache Léger has trasformed the non-descript curved yellow form behind the table just right into the female figure, which he differentiates from its surroundings by a slight indication of modelling in her forms. The figure would more fully emerge, rendered in assertive cylindrical forms, in two following paintings, Homme à la pipe and Homme au chien, 1920 (B., nos. 201 and 204).