French painter, sculptor, and filmmaker Fernand Léger was a major figure in the development of cubism, known best for his “machine art” and industrial landscapes that celebrated the rise of our century's technology.
Joseph Fernand Henri Léger was born February 4, 1881, in Argentan, Normandy into a peasant family, the son of a cattle-drover. When he left home at sixteen, he was apprenticed to an architect in Caen (1897-1899). This led to his employment as a draughtsman in Paris where he worked from 1900-1902. A year later, his attempts to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts were foiled when he failed the entrance exam. Never giving up, he settled for completing his studies at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs and the Academie Julian.
In 1909, Léger participated in an exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants. One of his early paintings ‘Nudes in the Forest’ demonstrates an evolving cubist expression. He and several other artists became part of the Puteaux Group, an offshoot of the Cubist movement. Major works from this cubist period include ‘La Noce’ (1911-12), ‘Woman in Blue’ (1912), and ‘Contrasts of Forms’ (1913). Until the First World War, his work had become increasingly abstract, limiting his palette to consist of bright flat colors.
In 1914, Fernand Léger served with the French army in the First World War. His experience as a stretcher-bearer served to inspire two of his most acclaimed works, 'The Soldier with a Pipe'(1916) and 'The Game of Cards' (1917). The power of the machinery used during the war had an overwhelming affect on the artist, and inspired many of his works in the ‘mechanical’ phase of his career. ‘The City’ is one of his most notable paintings from this period.
Inspired by a Chaplin feature film, Léger began work on the set design for his first film L'Herbier's L'Inhumane in 1923. His contribution to the futuristic film ‘Le Ballet Mecanique’ brought him great success and recognition.
Between 1924 and 1926, the artist returned to painting still life, and created large, abstract and decorative murals. ‘Objects in Space’ is part of a series of works that portray architectural elements replaced by scattered objects.
Fernand Léger traveled throughout Europe in the 1930’s, and made his first visit to the United States where he exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1935. A year later, he worked on the costume designs for ‘Things to Come,’ a British adaptation of an H.G. Wells story. In 1940, He settled in the United States and started teaching at Yale University. A return to France in 1945 inspired a desire to open up his own academy where he produced works that were less abstract. Instead, he concentrated on portraying acrobats, construction workers and other members of the working class. 'The Builders' (1950) is an example of his artistic efforts to depict the common man. In 1949, the artist opened a studio for ceramics, and in 1954, he created the glass mosaics for the University of Caracas.
In his late years, Léger created works that featured boldly outlined shapes framed in color that brought two separate compositions together as one. ‘The Great Parade’, one of his last paintings, is a monumental example of this original style.
Besides the windows and tapestries for the church at Audincourt (1951), some of the final paintings created by the artist include ‘Country Outing’, ‘The Camper’, and the series ‘The Big Parade’. Léger's work greatly influenced the movements of neo-plasticism in the Netherlands and constructivism in the Soviet Union. Posters and other types of applied art were also influenced by his original designs. Fernand Léger died at his home in 1955 and was buried in Gif-sur-Yvette, Essonne.