Although he experienced firsthand the horror of mechanized warfare in the frontline trenches of World War I, Léger did not hesitate afterwards to embrace the machine as being an essential and constructive force in human society. In a series of dynamic and spatially multi-layered compositions done in 1918 and 1919, Léger celebrated mechanical elements; in some the figure is inextricably enmeshed, or even broken down, within a mechanical universe, and in others Léger eliminated the human presence altogether.
By 1920, however, Léger had begun to reconstitute the human figure in a more conventional form. He later recalled, "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, towards a more realistic, less schematic representation" (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47).
Léger had been generally sympathetic to the aims of the Purist aesthetic, as practiced by Amadée Ozenfant and Charles Jeanneret (later Le Corbusier), and the De Stijl movement in The Netherlands, led by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. Up to this point, however, the spatial complexity in his mechanical paintings had been incompatible with the extreme flatness advocated by both movements, and the reductionistic abstract geometry of De Stijl. In 1920 Léonce Rosenberg, Léger's dealer, published the first French editions of Mondrian's 'Le Neo Plasticisme' and van Doesburg's 'Classique-Baroque-Moderne', and these writings encouraged Léger to pursue a greater clarity in his painting. He began to flatten his space and utilize rectangular elements as a significant means of structuring his compositions.
These new concerns may be observed in the present watercolor. The figure in it is possibly related to the standing woman in the two versions of Les deux femmes et la nature morte (Femmes croisées), both painted in 1920 (Bauquier, nos. 246 and 247), as well as the monumental canvas derived from them later that year, Les odalisques (Bauquier, no. 251). In the paintings she reaches forward to a still life set on a tea table, suggested here by the red shape at lower center. In both the study and the paintings Léger contrasts the curvilinear forms of the figures with the predominantly rectangular geometry of the backgrounds. In this way he defines the relative distances of his subjects within the picture plan, while at the same time employing predominantly flat forms. Léger extensively modeled the figures in the paintings to emphasize the roundness of their forms; he only hints at this in the upper right arm of the figure in the study. Indeed, the use of watercolor, which tends to encourage flatness of application at the expense of modeling, may have guided the development of this static and classical approach in his painting.
In 1924 Léger declared: "Modern man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order. All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces" (E.F. Fry, ed., "The Machine Aesthetic: The Manufactured Object, The Artisan and the Artist," Functions of Painting by Fernand Léger, New York, 1973, p. 52).
Having assimilated some of the elements and spirit of Neo-Plasticism, Léger occasionally painted entirely geometric compositions; however, these were usually done with larger goals in mind, which usually revolved around objects from the real world and the human figure, subjects that Mondrian and the painters of Die Stijl had completely renounced. Despite pressures on all sides to abandon figuration and move into abstraction, Léger, like Pablo Picasso, continued to make the human image the primary focus of his art.