Joseph Fernand Henri (Fernand) Léger (Argentan 1881 – Gif-sur-Yvette 1955) was the son of a cattle farmer who died when Fernand was 4 years old. At the age of sixteen, Léger apprenticed with an architect in Caen. In 1900 he left for Paris, where he settled in the Montparnasse district. He took classes at the École des Arts Décoratifs and at the Académie Julian. His paintings from that time are influenced by Impressionism; the current that is prevailing at that time.
In 1907 he met Robert Delaunay, Alexandre Archipenko, Amédeo Modigliani and Marc Chagall. He also came into contact with the work of Cézanne, which led him to work more and more cubist. In 1911, Léger joined the Puteaux group in the house of Jacques Villon. When Léger painted the series Fumées sur les toits in 1911-1912, he was at a turning point in his career. The view from his studio over the roofs of Paris, with its chimneys and plumes of smoke, inspires Léger to experiment with form and color, working from relatively realistic to abstraction and color. This search ultimately resulted in cubist works such as Contrastes de formes (1913).
During the First World War he was mobilized in the French army. After being injured, he was declared unfit for work in 1916 and was able to resume his painting career. La partie de cartes (1917), which Helene Kröller-Müller purchased for her collection, is a highlight in Léger's oeuvre and unthinkable without the Fumées sur les toits.
His works from the 1920s are characterized by a mechanical depiction of people and objects. In 1920 Léger met the architect Le Corbusier, with whom he became friends. He was also introduced to the work of Piet Mondriaan and Theo van Doesburg, which became a source of inspiration for him. The machine aesthetic reflected his hope to create art that would describe and inspire modern life. After the war he turned away from experiments with pure abstraction. Vibrant paintings depicting soldiers, factory workers, boatmen and pulsating urban environments are often the subject such as The City of 1919 and The Mechanic of 1920.
As a call to order, Léger introduced the monumental, classical figure into his art. The absolute peace and quiet of Woman Holding a Vase shows his affinity with the neo-antique images of women such as Pablo Picasso and Gino Severini did and just as pure as Le Corbusier. Léger's palette of blue, yellow, red and black is indebted to Piet Mondrian's contemporaneous De Stijl paintings, which further underlines Léger's identification with utopian ideals of the time.
The result of more than a hundred preparatory studies from 1947, The Great Parade is another defining work within the artist's oeuvre. The circus is the arena for spectators, clowns, trapeze artists and animal acts. Léger wanted to reach the general public with this.
It reflects two central themes of Léger's late paintings: human figures in motion, including acrobats and musicians, and the leisure activities of the working population such as cycling, swimming and picnicking.
Léger had been fascinated by traveling circus troupes since his childhood. The circus had become the symbol of an egalitarian space. Many artists – including Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall – saw it as an environment in which culture, music and performing arts were accessible to a much wider audience.
Léger said of the painting of the Acrobat (see below): “The acrobat and the disk that surrounds him represent movement. The flower in his hand reinforces the impression of movement; this also applies to the shape of the cat on the chair. The straight lines of the chair, those at the edge of the canvas on the same side, the ladder and the acrobat's partner form the static part of the image, which contrasts violently with the dynamic part. The more contrasts there are in a photo, the stronger the painting.”
The Kröller Müller hosted the exhibition Fernand Léger and the Roofs of Paris from November 19, 2022 to April 2, 2023; created in collaboration with the Triton Collection Foundation.