Fernand Léger (French, 1881-1955) was initially a Cubist painter and sculptor who over time shifted into figurative and Populist styles of painting. The artist was also influenced by industrial technology that he rendered into a style of bold colors and monumental mechanical forms, known as “machine art.” Léger’s simplified and pre-modern depictions have some critics and art historians regarding him as a founder of the Pop Art expression.
Léger was born in rural France in the small town of Normandy. In his early adulthood, he apprenticed for two years as a draftsman at an architectural office in Caen. In 1900, he moved to Paris and initially began a career in architecture but soon after worked as a professional editor of photographs. In 1903, he enrolled at the Paris School of Decorative Arts after he failed to get accepted into the École des Beaux Arts. Around the same time, Léger viewed the retrospective of Paul Cézanne at the Paris Salon d’Automne, which had a profound effect on his style of painting. In 1908, Léger rented a studio at La Ruche (“The Beehive”), an artists settlement in Montparnasse. There, he met painters Robert Delaunay, Marc Chagall, Cham Soutine; sculptors Jacques Lipchitz and Henri Laurens; and poets Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, and Guillaume Apollinaire. He also met Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the painters who created Cubism in 1907. Before then, Léger was painting in a Impressionist and Fauvist manner but switched to Cubism after meeting the revolutionaries.
Due to the emergence of the First World War, Léger enlisted as a military engineer and fought on the front lines. In 1917, Léger was hospitalized after being gassed at the Battle of Verdun. After the war, Léger focused on his artwork as steadfast as he did before. Léger was fascinated with machinery and mechanical objects at the time and incorporated the shapes and forms into his paintings. In the mid-1920s, Léger joined a group of artists known as ‘Purists,’ who stripped Cubism of its decorative aspects. This technique adopted flatter colors and utilized, bold, black outlines. Other Purists included the painter Amédée Ozenfant and the painter-architect Le Corbusier. Léger also experimented with film and in 1926, directed and produced The Mechanical Ballet. The film used photography by Man Ray and Dudley Murphy and music by American composer George Antheil. Léger also produced mosaics for the façade of Notre Dame de Toute-Grâce at Plateau d’Assy in southeastern France in 1949 and the American memorial of Bastogne in 1950. He also produced a mural for the United Nations building in New York City in 1952 and stained glass windows for the Sacré-Coeur, a church in Audincourt, France in 1951.
In 1931, Léger visited New York for the first time and traveled to New York and Chicago. In 1935, the Museum of Modern Art held a solo exhibition of his work. Additionally, in 1938, he designed and decorated Nelson Rockefeller’s apartment. By the Second World War, Léger taught art at Yale University. Toward the end of his career, Léger returned to France and lectured in Berlin, designed mosaics and stained glass for the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas and the São Paulo Opera. In 1945, he joined the French Communist Party and promoted democratic socialist values till the end of his life. In 1955, Fernand Léger died in his home in Gif-sur-Yvette.
In 2008, his painting Étude pour la femme en bleu (1912-13) sold for a little over $39,000,000.00. Fernand Léger’s paintings and archival material can be found in numerous international collections and major museums like The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Art Institute in Chicago, Tate Gallery in London, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Albertina in Vienna.