Fernand Leger

Fernand Leger

Fernand Leger was a French artist (painter, graphic artist and filmmaker), outstanding representative of vanguard epoch, creator of a personal variation of Cubism.

Early years and start of the artistic career

Joseph Fernand Henri Leger was born on February 4, 18881 in Normandy, in the wotn of Argantan. His father raised cattle and died, when Joseph was little. And mother didn’t understand son’s desire to become an artist at any means. He finished the college and religious boarding school in Tinchebray, and at the age of 16 his uncle advised his to Caen to study architecture. In 1899 Fernand moved to Paris, where worked for three years as a draftsman and did his military service in the 2nd sapper regiment in Versailles. Only in 1903 he started serious trainings in oil painting at the École des Beaux-Arts under the guidance of sculptor Jean-Léon Gérome, at Gabriel Ferrier’s school and Académie Julian. He also often visited Louvre to acquaint legacy of prominent masters.
Those, who knew Fernand Leger, claimed he was rather direct and sometimes unceremonious in communication and was very lonely. Together with Andre Mare he rented a studio for painting and earned for living as a photographer and assistant of an architect. His first paintings – “My Mother’s Garden” and “The portrait of Uncle”, created in 1905, were influenced by Andre Marten, known for his pastose and colorful manner. Later, Fernand was carried away with Fauvism and Paul Cezanne’s constructive modeling of forms.

New sources of inspiration appear in the artist’s life after settling in “La Ruche” (“the beehive”) in the “Passage Dantzig” – a residence, where a whole bunch artists lived at that time – Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Robert Delaunay, along with writers – Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars.

The post-mortal exhibition of Cezanne’s works in 1907 largely impressed Fernand Leger. He started showing his works publicly and in 1908 and 1909 sent his paintings made in Corsica at the Salon d’Automne, and some drawings at the exhibition of 1910. Then he suddenly shifted to cubism and destroyed almost all his old pieces.

Early cubistic period

In the cubistic period, the author made accent on volume. Between 1912 and 1914 he worked over “Contrast of forms” series, displayed at the show of “the Independents”. The highlight of that Salon was Leger’s canvas “Nudes in the forest” (1909 – 1911).
Fernand Leger got a nickname “Tubist” (a pun from “tube” and “cubist”) for his emphasis on cylindrical shapes. Art critic Metzinger wrote: “Fernand Leger measures day and night, weighing the mass expected resistance. His compositions – a living body, bodies which are trees and human figures. Strict artist Fernand Leger is fond of this affecting the biology of the deep side of painting, which had a premonition of Michelangelo and Leonardo”. The painter himself claimed he followed traditions of French impressionism, which didn’t satisfy him not with exaggerated colorfulness, but with lack of constructive power. In his earliest pictures Leger used elements that would appear in all his further compositions – truncated cones that reminded of mechanical details and visually deformed hands with clinched fingers.

Fernand Leger didn’t try to imitate cubists – he was interested in revealing the essence of volume. And if Delaunay used half-tones, Leger preferred pure colors in analyzing of the object’s structure. Cubistic method was applied in still lifes, like “Alarm clock” (1914), landscapes, like “Houses under the Trees” (1913) and even in nudes, like “Nude Model in the Studio” (1912 – 1913). And such pieces, as “The Balcony” (1914) and “The Staircase” (1914) amazed everyone with dynamism.

In 1913 the master made a contract with famous art-dealer Kahnweiler that allowed him to move to a comfortable studio in Rue Notre-Dame des Champs, where he worked till the end of his life. Newspapers wrote a lot about him; Fernand gave lectures. One of them, “The Origins of Painting and its Representational Value” was especially successful. Considering himself the adherent of Cezanne, he declared, “From now on, everything can converge toward an intense realism obtained by purely dynamic means.

Pictorial contrasts used in their purest sense (complementary colors, lines, and forms) are hence the structural basis of modern pictures”.

Postwar period

Beginning of World War I, military service and a year in a hospital after being gassed, interrupted Leger’s creative activity, yet gave him possibility to overthink many issues.

After demobilization in 1917, Fernand Leger returned to art. In 1922 he confessed: “Three years without touching a paintbrush but contact with reality at its most violent, its most crude […] When I was discharged I could benefit from these hard years. I reached a decision, without compromising in any way I would model in pure and local color, using large volumes. I could do without tasteful arrangements, delicate shading, and dead backgrounds. I was no longer fumbling for the key, I had it. The war matured me, and I am not afraid to say so”.

Various mechanisms, urban scenes became the main subjects of the artist’s works (“The Mechanic”, “Acrobats in the circus”, “The City” and others). In 1925 he manifested the idea to introduce color not only into exteriors, but to interiors of dwellings and public buildings as well, creating architectonic space in that way. Leger dreamed paintings to become a sort of opposition to the wall: “…I like the forms that modern industry imposes, and I make use of them: steel, with its thousands of colorful reflections, is subtler and steadier than so-called classical subjects”.

Experiments in cinematography

Fernand Leger enthusiastically cooperated with cinematographers and participated in creating Abel Gance’s film “The wheel” in 1922). With the help of cameramen he made his own film “Ballet Mécanique” in 1924. At the same time he rendered a series of compositions that united purism, cubism and superrealism – they all were built according accurate mechanic scheme of vertically-sectioned surfaces: “Umbrella and Bowler”, “Accordion”, etc.

Fernand’s painting of the end of 1920s is marked by presence of exaggerated personal features, which witnesses the influence of cinematographic language. In “Leaves and Shell”, “Keys” and other pieces are structurally and coloristically well-balanced and bear evidence of the master’s inclination to monumentalism at that time. In 1933 together with Le Corbusier he visited the International Congress of contemporary architecture in Greece.


Between 1932 and 1935 Fernand Leger taught at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière (Academy of the large thatched cottage) together with his assistant Belorus painter Nadia Khodasevich, who had been a student of Kazimir Malevich. Leger had his exhibitions all over the world and even in the USA in 1936.

In the end of 1930s the master got involved in creating murals. Unfortunately, his projects found no response in the committee of the International Exhibition in Paris of 1937. He got only one commission for a grandiose wall-painting “The Transmission of Energy” for Palace of Discovery. He depicted electric towers in a post-storm landscape with rainbows on background. Leger happily made decorations for public festivals and buildings.

In emigration

The outburst of World War II and military defeat of France painfully echoed in Fernand’s soul. He was forced to move from a town to a town, and later migrated to the USA, where he was offered to occupy a Chair in the Yale University and later in Mills College, California. During the years of emigration Fernand Leger created around 120 pictures, most of which were variations and reminiscence on the subjects of drawings and paintings he had took with himself to America. As the painter used to say, probably under the influence of local atmosphere, he worked faster in there then he used before. In the USA he made designs of theatrical decorations, sketches for the interior of Radio City and Rockefeller’s home, projected stained-glass and polychromic sculptures (together with Mary Callery).

Last years

After returning to France in 1945, the master joined the Communist Party. Gradually he distanced from abstraction, concentrating on monumentality of shapes. Once, watching as Marseilles’ dockers fooled around and threw each other into water, Fernand Leger decided to experiment and capture and visually analyze a person in movement. “Divers on a Yellow Background”, “Dance” and similar to huge calligraphic signs “The Big Black Divers” – are parts of one cycle. Episodes with circus and street bands also often appeared in his canvases at that time, as well bicyclists, presented in numerous variations – “Beautiful Cyclists”, “Big Julie” and later “Two Cyclists”, “Leisure on red background”.

His friends were amazed, how the artist managed to correct his numerous students, create settings, illustrate books, organize exhibitions, try his hand in ceramics and deliver lectures, in which he was harshly criticizing both abstractionism and social realism.
Fernand Leger died on August 17, 1955 in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.