Born on February 4, 1881, in Normandy, France, Léger grew up in a family of cattle farmers who discouraged his interest in an artistic career. He worked as an architectural apprentice in Caen from 1897 to 1899 before moving to Paris in 1900. There he supported his artistic training by working as an architectural draftsman and photography retoucher. Although he was rejected by the École des Beaux-Arts, Léger studied painting as an unenrolled student under the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (87.15.130) until 1904. His approach to form changed dramatically, however, following a visit to the Paul Cézanne (51.112.1) retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in 1907. Inspired by Cézanne’s attempt to depict three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface without relying on the illusionary pictorial tools of perspective and chiaroscuro, Léger began developing a Cubistvisual vocabulary. He advanced his new formal language among a coterie of avant-garde artists and writers after taking a studio at La Ruche, an artist residence in Montparnasse, in 1909. There he became close with artists Alexander Archipenko, Robert Delaunay, and Jacques Lipchitz, and writers Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, who, in turn, introduced Léger to Cubist painters Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger.
Léger debuted his own take on Cubism at the 1910 Salon d’Automne with Nudes in a Forest (1909–11; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), which depicts figures in a landscape reduced to an assortment of geometric volumes. The following year, he participated in the first public exhibition of Cubism at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, exhibiting alongside members of the Salon Cubists: Albert Gleizes, Metzinger, Francis Picabia, and the Villon brothers. Throughout the early 1910s, Léger honed his Cubist vocabulary, largely with support from the Salon Cubists (sometimes known as the Puteaux Group), a group of Cubist painters, sculptors, and critics who produced a more colorful, legible, and public iteration of Cubism when compared to the works of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.
Léger’s Composition (Study for “Nude Model in the Studio”) of 1912 (2016.237.17) reveals a keen understanding of Cubism. Here he has broken down form into an arrangement of faceted, geometric planes where figure and ground are integrated. Rounded arcs at the composition’s center outline the contours of a female form, suggesting the curve of a back, buttocks, and calf without representing a figure naturalistically. Chiaroscuro has been reduced to roughly painted passages of contrasting black and white detached from a light source.
On October 20, 1913, Léger signed a contract with Cubist dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, making the German national his sole dealer. Despite working more closely with Braque, Juan Gris, and Picasso, Léger continued to refine his own Cubist style. He painted The Village of 1914 (2013.271), for instance, in a palette of bold primary and secondary colors. The planes of color traditionally used to mark illusionistic passages of highlight and shading now convey the intensity and jarring contrasts of urban life.
At the outbreak of World War I, Léger was mobilized in August 1914 and sent to the front lines in the Argonne Forest. While living in the trenches, he sketched the world around him—the artillery parts, airplanes, and soldiers that comprised life on the front lines. A drawing for The Card Game of 1917 (2016.237.19) depicts the hunched form of a soldier playing cards, a pastime that provided an entertaining distraction from battle. The tight composition recalls the cramped, claustrophobic conditions of life in the trenches, while a schematic rendering of the human figure in geometric volumes reminiscent of machine parts heralds a new phase in the artist’s oeuvre. Léger credited his renewed interest in representing the outside world to his experiences at the front. Respect for his fellow soldier and worker motivated Léger to make art accessible to a mass public without abandoning the modernist project.
Léger spent the immediate postwar years developing the mechanical style he had begun to explore on the front lines as a means of suggesting the dynamic pace of a technologically driven modern age. In The Bargeman of 1918 (1999.363.35), his Cubist vocabulary has become more legible. His fractured planes now allude to the boat rudder and wheel held by the captain’s metallic, clawlike arms. Fragments of text excised from contemporary advertisements and references to building facades in the composition’s upper corners offer glimpses of the Parisian cityscape while cruising down the Seine. Similarly, Mechanical Elements from 1920 (1999.363.36) presents a stylized view of interlocking disks, pistons, and clamps in a compressed, chaotic compositional space that reflects the energy of modern life. Léger—ever willing to experiment with new formats and media—went on to examine the intensity of the machine age in a collaboration with George Antheil, Dudley Murphy, and Man Ray for the film Ballet mécanique (Mechanical Ballet) in 1924. Rejecting a conventional narrative, the film emphasizes modern vitality through fast-paced montage and a series of quick cuts between everyday consumer objects, close-ups of body parts, and snippets of advertisements.
Though Léger’s fascination with the modern world never diminished, his aesthetic evolved again in the early 1920s. A work like Woman with a Cat from 1921 (1994.486) reveals his association with Purist artists Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant, who advocated for an artistic fusion of classicism and modernity. Reviving timeless and rational forms, they reasoned, would respond to the visual chaos and fragmentation of the avant-garde with a sense of restorative regularity. Léger’s 1921 painting calls upon classical depictions of the female nude. The female figure’s static, frontal pose recalls sources from Assyrian or Egyptian sculpture, and a renewed interest in modeling to suggest bodily form and dimension references the history of Western painting. Despite this classicization, Léger’s nude remains decidedly modern. Her firm skin appears buffed and polished, her black hair has the metallic sheen of a factory-produced mechanical part, and the gridded, friezelike background (also seen in Three Women by a Garden of 1922 [1987.125.1]) evokes the standardization and regularity of the machine age.
By the 1930s, Léger’s interest in capturing the external world in an accessible visual language extended to his politics. A painting like Study of Objects from 1930 from the Objects in Space series reflects his efforts to make contemporary art more democratic and comprehensible to all viewers without resorting to the contemporary preference for social realism. Study of Objects not only features recognizable forms, but the compositional arrangement is indebted to the collagelike process of montage, a mass cultural technique that would have also been legible to a wide audience. Though he had taught painting in Paris since the early 1920s (to well-known artists like Tarsila do Amaral, Louise Bourgeois, Sam Francis (58.23), Hans Hartung, Asger Jorn, George L. K. Morris, and Jules Olitski), Léger began teaching painting to the common worker in the mid-1930s, as part of his activities as a leftist proponent of the French Popular Front. His work took on an increasingly figurative, populist style.
With the onset of World War II, Léger made plans to move to the United States, where he lived from 1940 to 1945. Divers, Blue and Black from 1942–43 (1999.363.37) reflects his later style. Here Léger continues to emphasize plastic form over naturalism. Inspired by a group of swimming dockworkers he witnessed in the Marseille harbor while awaiting passage to New York, the canvas features interlocking, brightly colored, flat planes outlined by a thick, graphic line. The industrial detritus and urban environment of New York continued to inform Léger’s work after his return to France in 1945. He spent his late career examining his surroundings through new media: stained glass, mosaic, and polychrome ceramic sculpture, but he never lost interest in depicting the everyday worker, as in The Bicyclist of 1951 (1997.149.11). He took on large-scale projects during the last years of his life, including a stained-glass window commission for the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas and a mosaic for the São Paulo opera (never completed). Today Léger’s personal papers and the largest collection of his diverse oeuvre are housed in the Musée National Fernand Léger in Biot, France, which opened in 1960, just five years after the artist died in his home at Gif-sur-Yvette.