Fernand Léger France, 1881-1955

Nothing predestined Fernand Léger, son of a Norman cattle breeder, to become a prominent figure of the Parisian avant-garde. Less studious but a good draughtsman, he worked as an apprentice at an architect in Caen. He went up to Paris at the age of 19 and attended the classes of painter Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1907, a decisive year for him, Léger moved to the Ruche in the artistic effervescence of Montparnasse, where he befriended Robert Delaunay, Marc Chagall, Blaise Cendrars…
Brought to cubism by Cézanne’s lesson, he quickly forged his own style in the margins of Braque and Picasso’s research. To transcribe the dynamism of his time, he develops a painting based on the contrasts of forms and colors, keystone of his aesthetic that no further evolution will question. He exhibits at the Autumn and Independent Shows and participates in the group La Section d'Or. In 1913, the merchant Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler offered him an exclusive contract. His departure for war in August 1914 marked a brutal break. At the front, Léger drew on makeshift supports before being hospitalized and then discharged in 1917.
After the war, the themes of the city and the machine caught the painter’s attention. Inspired by modern life, Léger advocated a «new realism», attuned to the plastic beauty of industrial civilization. Aware that painting is competing with the spectacle of the big city, he integrates into his compositions, urban signals and mechanical motifs, while the human figure, disensualised and standardised, is reduced to geometry.

In the 1920s, multiple collaborations allowed the painter to open up to other creative fields: literature, live performances, architecture, etc. Fascinated by cinema, Léger worked with directors Abel Gance and Marcel L'Herbier. Above all, he directed Le Ballet mécanique (1924), considered «the first film without a script», an experience that inspired him to take up the principle of close-up in his paintings. The object, which became the central subject of his works, freed itself from gravity in the series of Objects in space.


Recognized internationally since the 1930s, Fernand Léger exhibited in Europe and the United States, where he visited several times. From that time on, his pictorial research departed from mechanistic aesthetics and became part of the great pictorial tradition. His works bear witness to a return to the figure and the development of decorative research, in dialogue with architecture. In the spirit of the Popular Front, Léger took a stand during the debates on the Querelle du réalisme, organized by Aragon at the Maison de la culture in Paris. The year 1937 was marked by his participation in the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques.

At the end of his life, Léger, animated by the ideal of an art for all, embarked on numerous monumental projects, for sacred art commissions (Assy chapel, church of the Sacred Heart of Audincourt, etc.) or public buildings (Caracas University, UN palace in New York, etc.).
Fundamentally optimistic, his series like La Grande Parade and La Partie de campagne evoke the world of leisure and social progress.


The year 1950 is marked by the series of Builders, which is the subject of many studies. His album Cirque was published by the publisher Tériade at the same time. As early as 1949, Fernand Léger regularly went down to Biot (Alpes-Maritimes) to work with the Brice workshop on polychrome ceramic sculptures. The painter disappeared on August 17, 1955 in Gif-sur-Yvette. In 1960, Nadia Léger, his widow, and Georges Bauquier, his assistant, inaugurated the Fernand Léger National Museum, on the land bought by the artist, just before his death, at the foot of the village of Biot.