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Fernand Leger

 (1881 - 1955)
Fernand (Joseph Henri) Leger was active/lived in Connecticut, California / France.  Fernand Leger is known for cubist painting-objects, machinery and figures, teaching.

Fernand Leger

    lay-zhay  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Fernand Leger
One of the major Cubist painters in France in the early 20th Century, Fernand Léger, also became a sculptor, ceramist, art educator and filmmaker.  He was born in Normandy where his father raised livestock, and originally studied to be a re-toucher of photographs and an architect's draughtsman.  Between 1897 and 1899, he was apprenticed to an architect in Caen, and then worked in Paris for two years as a draughtsman followed by two years as a retoucher.

In 1903, he applied to the Ecole des Beaux Arts* in Paris but was denied admission, so he enrolled at the Acdemie Julian* and the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs*.  He also 'hung around' the Ecole des Beaux Arts* Academy, studying with Jean Leon Gerome but saying later that the experience was "three empty and useless years". 

However, he did begin to work seriously as a painter, first working in a style influenced by Impressionism*.  Later he destroyed most of the work of this period.  In 1907, upon seeing the painting of Cézanne at the Salon d'Automne*, he adopted a more geometrical style.  By 1910, affiliated with the Puteaux Group*, an offshoot of the Cubist movement, and living among bohemian artists in Montparnasse in Paris, he had adopted his own form of Cubism*, which critics dubbed 'Tubism' because of the emphasis on cylindrical forms.  Soon he was considered one of the country's three major Cubist painters along with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque but differed from then in that he did not do collage*, and he placed curvilinear forms against rectilinear grids.  In his stiriving for a sense of action in his paintings with the curvilinear lines, Léger was also much influenced by the Futurism* of Italy.

During World War I, Leger was gassed in Verdun in 1916 during service in the army, which he joined in 1914 and was at the front in Argonne.  He did many sketches of wartime subjects, especially airplanes and guns and fellow soldiers, and during convalescence in Villepinte, he painted The Card Players (1917).  This painting has been described as "a canvas whose robot-like monstrous figures reflect the ambivalence of his experience of war." (wikipedia)  This work, reflecting his shock at the realities of war, was the beginning of his 'mechanical' period, the turning of his back on abstraction. 

He devoted himself to depicting common, real objects that he described as "everyday poetic images" and that gave him a sense of returning to order.  Cityscapes and machine parts became subjects in his work as did nude females, mothers and children, and animals grazing in landscapes.  These paintings had very bold colors.  Not everyone appreciated his work.  Alfred Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, said that Léger was a "noisy artist chasing fire engines, the business about him being a champion of the machine, and the clever mot about 'Tubism' ".

In 1919, Leger married Jeanne-Augustine Lohy, and the following year began a friendship with Le Corbusier, a French Swiss architect who espoused modernism and became affiliated with the International Style*.

In 1925, influenced by Le Corbusier, he did some mural decorating of highly abstract designs with Robert Delaunay for the entry hall of the exhibition Les Arts Décoratifs.  He became affiliated with the Purist Movement* and the aesthetics of machines espoused by the Purists and created paintings with that "were static, precise and polished appearance of machinery." (artcult)  He also did paintings with gigantic objects isolated in space, created decor for theatres, and experimenting with cinema, produced the "Ballet Mechanic", the first film that did not have a script and one much influenced by Futurism.  It was a "series of images of a woman's lips and teeth, close-up shots of ordinary objects, and repeated images of human activities and machines in rhythmic movement." (wikipedia)  At one point he considered giving up painting for filmmaking

Fernand Leger lived in the United States during World War II, teaching at Yale University and Mills College.  He was much startled by the sight of trash or refuse in landscape, the juxtaposition of junk with flowers, and he did paintings reflecting these sights such as The Tree in the Ladder (1944) and Romantic Landscape (1946).

He returned to Paris after the war and opened an art academy with Robert Brice, a former student.  He became a member of the communist party and again returned to a more realist style focused on activities of common people.  Reflecting his interest in working classes and his desire to make artwork understandable to them, he did large paintings "celebrating the people, featuring acrobats, cyclists and builders, thickly contoured and painted in clear, flat colours". (artchive)

From 1946 to 1949, he created a mosaic for the facade of the church at Assy; in 1950, he founded a ceramics studio at Biot, which in 1957, became the Leger Museum; in 1951; he completed windows for the church at Ardincourt; and in 1954, he did windows for the University at Caracas.

Leger's first wife died in 1950, and two years later he married Nadia Khodossevitch.

He died at his home in 1955, and is buried in Gif-sur-Yvette, Essone.

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris hosted a memorial retrospective exhibition in 1956, and the next year one was held at the Haus der Kunst in Munich.  In 1998, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held a retrospective of the work of Fernand Léger. 

Sources:  (from The Bulfinch Guide to Art History) (Great Masters)éger (Credits: Buck, Robert T. et al. (1982). Fernand Léger. New York; Cowling, Elizabeth; Mundy, Jennifer (1990). On Classic Ground: Picasso, Léger, de Chirico and the New Classicism 1910-1930;  Eliel, Carol S. et al. (2001). L'Esprit Nouveau: Purism in Paris, 1918-1925;  Néret, Gilles (1993). F. Léger. New York: BDD Illustrated Books.

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary:

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Fernand Leger
Fernand Léger was born in 1881, the same year both Picasso and Braque were born, in Normandy; his father was a substantial cattle grazer.  Fernand was trained as an architectural draughtsman and later worked as a professional retoucher of photographs.  He was an abstract painter before the War, in which he had a brilliant record.  He had visited the United States twice.  In France, he lived in a villa next to some railroad tracks in a Paris suburb, and a farm in Normandy where he raised pigs and made cider.

It is often said that Léger was the artist of the machine age, but he was not entirely a man of his time.  He knew poverty as a child, was gassed in World War I, had to flee before the invading Nazis in World War II.  But there is little of death and destruction in his work. Other men have painted with more passion, few with more exuberance.

Léger returned to France at the end of 1945 after spending the war years traveling and lecturing in the United States.  There had been three previous visits to America in the 1930s, all entrepreneurial adventures of only modest success.  He had resumed his practice of making public appearances to explain his art to a sometimes curious, sometimes bewildered public.  In addition, he enjoyed many celebrity encounters, like a holiday with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, an evening at the theatre with James Joyce and friendships with Ezra Pound and Henry Miller.  Léger died in 1955.

Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Sources include:
Time Magazine, March 9, 1962 Leger's Popular Mechanics by Marcia E. Vetrocq in Art in America magazine, June 1998

Biography from Denis Bloch Fine Art
Joseph Fernand Henri Léger was born on February 4, 1881, in Argentan, France where his father raised cattle.  After apprenticing with an architect in Caen from 1897 to 1899, Léger settled in Paris in 1900, and supported himself as an architectural draftsman.  He applied to the École des Beaux-Arts* and was rejected.  Nevertheless he attended classes there beginning in 1903 as a non-enrolled student and also studied at the Académie Julian*.  He began to work seriously as a painter at the age of 25.

Léger's earliest-known works, which date from 1905, were primarily influenced by Impressionism*. The experience of seeing the Paul Cézanne retrospective at the 1907 Salon d'Automne* and his contact with the early Cubism* of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had a significant impact on the development of his style—it focused the artist more on drawing and geometry.  His critics would label his personal style of Cubism as 'Tubism' due to its emphasis on cylindrical forms.

From 1911 to 1914 Léger's work became increasingly abstract, and he started to limit his palette to the primary colors and black & white. In 1912 he was given his first solo show at Galerie Kahnweiler, Paris.

Léger served in the military from 1914 to 1917 producing sketches of artillery pieces, airplanes and fellow soldiers in the trenches.  The war years had a significant impact on him as he renounced abstraction and claimed to have discovered the beauty of common objects, which he described as 'everyday poetic images'. He began painting in a clean and precise 'mechanical' style, in which boldly colored objects are set against cool whites and defined in their simplest terms, using cityscapes and machine forms as his subject matter.

Leger made three visits to the United States in the 1930s. New York impressed the artist as he wrote to friend Le Corbusier: "I'm still constantly astonished by the vertical urge of these people drunk with architecture.  From my room on the thirtieth floor, the night is the most astonishing spectacle in the world, nothing can be compared to it....This city is infernal. A mixture of elegance and toughness."

In 1935 the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Art Institute of Chicago held exhibitions of his work. Léger lived in the United States from 1940 to 1945 where he taught at Yale University and Mills College but returned to France after the war.

In the decade before his death, Léger's wide-ranging projects included book illustrations, monumental figure paintings and murals, stained-glass windows, mosaics, polychrome ceramic sculptures, and set and costume designs. In 1955 he won the Grand Prize at the São Paulo Bienal*. Léger died on August 17 of that year at his home in Gif-sur-Yvette, France. The Musée Fernand Léger was inaugurated in 1960 in Biot, France.

Léger's influence can be found in the works of Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Milton Resnick, Louise Bourgeois, Richard Lindner, Arshile Gorky, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Brice Marsden, Frank Stella, Tom Wesselmann and James Rosenquist, among others. In May 2008, a Leger painting 'Study for a Woman in Blue' set an auction record for the artist selling for $39.2 million dollars--bidding between only two bidders.

"The Beautiful is everywhere; perhaps more in the arrangement of your saucepans on the white walls of your kitchen than in your eighteenth-century living room or in the official museums."

Select Museum Collections:
Museum of Modern Art, NY
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Musee National Fernand Leger, Franace
Guggenheim Museum, NY
Armand Hammer Museum, CA
Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland
Tate Gallery, London

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary:

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

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About  Fernand Leger

Born:  1881 - Argentan, France
Died:   1955 - Gif-sur-Yvette, France
Known for:  cubist painting-objects, machinery and figures, teaching