After five years of wartime exile, Léger returned to France in December 1945. He was glad to be home. In "Art and the People," a 1946 article published in the journal Arts de France, Léger declared, "I want to tell what I felt in returning to France, the joy I have had in rediscovering my country... I assure you that the people have made a great advance in France. I assure you that a magnificent evolution has come about... I have faith in France" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 147-148). Léger began working toward a crowning series of large murals, culminating in La grande parade, 1954 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). Engaging in an increasingly diverse range of projects, within a few years he commanded a small army of studio assistants, artisans and craftsmen, to help him create ceramics, large sculptures, mosaics and stained-glass windows. He directed his own school, the Atelier Fernand Léger on the boulevard Clichy, where he had as many as a hundred students at a time. The reputation he had established in New York during the war encouraged many young Americans artists, including Sam Francis, Richard Stankiewicz, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, to seek him out and enroll in his classes under the G.I. Bill.
Remarkably, Léger found time to paint numerous easel-sized paintings as well, some of which are directly related to his larger compositions. There are also independent figures, abstract pictures that were intended as ideas for murals, still-life paintings in the time-honored French tradition of Chardin. The present Le Compotier of 1948 carries forward, in Léger's more freely composed and organic post-war style, the precedents of the great nature morte compositions he had done during the 1920s (e.g., Bauquier, no. 414: fig. 1). Still-life objects dominate the eight magnificent paintings of Braque's Atelier series done between 1949 and 1955, suggesting that for both men the nature morte--the painting of familiar objects in the studio environment--was the essential vehicle for contemplating the painter's craft at this late stage in each of their careers. Léger selected the present Le Compotier to hang among his more recent, postwar efforts in his first retrospective exhibition held in France, including paintings done between 1905 and 1949, at the Musée national d'art moderne, Paris in October to November 1949.
Léger's Post-War pictures usually display one or the other of two fundamental formal approaches; indeed, he sometimes treated his subject twice, initially in one and then in the other manner. In the first, black contours define the figure or object, which like a vessel contain local color; the forms may abut and even overlap one another on a neutral or colored ground. In his alternative, second approach, the imagery is flatter, the design more graphic and reductionistic, having been rendered entirely as black outlines on a solid light ground, which Léger had partly covered with bands and patches of pure color, which act like panes of translucent colored glass that illuminate the composition. His purpose was to "destroy" the confines of the wall.
Le Compotier stands out among his late still-lifes for having been executed in a third way that combines elements of the previous two: Léger has retained firm outlines and local color, but has immersed these objects in freely floating, overlapping and intersecting areas of color--pale blue and yellow--which weave in and out among the pitcher, the compotier holding fruit and the tree form at right, binding together this complexly rendered composition on a single, flattened but spatially ambiguous plane. Objects and the ground merge into a single, unified space. The irregular and twisting borders of the composition moreover appear to abnegate the rectangular format of the canvas. The artist thereafter employed this means of enmeshing object with ground to guide the composition of his relief sculptures in bronze and painted ceramic. Léger's late "mural" style represents the ultimate evolution in basic principles of painting that he set forth in his celebrated Contrastes de formes series of 1913-1914--"the simultaneous ordering of three plastic components: Lines, Forms and Colors" (quoted in ibid., p. 4).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Le Compotier, 1925. Sold, Christie's, New York, 4 May 2011, lot 55.