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Fernand Léger with "The City' at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, May 1943
Fernand Léger with "The City' at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, May 1943, 1943
Adrian Siegel, American
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About the Artist

Fernand Léger (born 1881, died 1955) lived through a period of extraordinary changes that transformed everyday life. He experienced the transition from candle and gaslight to electricity, from horse-drawn carts to the automobile and airplane, and from a mostly rural society to one that was increasingly urban. His generation also saw the invention of new communications media such as film, telegraph, and radio. Léger recognized how the accelerated pace of life affected art:

If pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated it. . . . The view through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things. A modern man registers a hundred times more sensory impressions than an eighteenth-century artist. . . . The compression of the modern picture, its variety, its breaking up of forms, are the result of all this. –Fernand Léger, 1914

Léger was born in Argentan (ar-zhen-tahn), a small town in northwestern France, where his father bred cattle. He enjoyed drawing and studied architecture in school. As a young man, Léger worked as an apprentice in a local architect’s office and later served as an architectural draftsman in Paris. We can see his continuing interest in buildings and structures in The City.

He began to focus seriously on painting in 1903 and took classes at art schools in Paris. Starting in 1909, Léger lived at La Ruche (French for “the beehive”), an art-studio complex that was a haven for artists from all over Europe. He met other avant-garde artists who had workspaces in this lively community, such as Robert Delaunay and Jacques Lipchitz. Paris was the center of experimentation for modern artists, including Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who developed a style known as Cubism. Léger reinvented Cubism to meet his own artistic goals.

Léger served in World War I from 1914 to 1918 and said that his experiences during the war sparked his fascination with machines and mechanical forms. Describing the evolution of his art, Léger stated:

Each artist possesses an offensive weapon that allows him to intimidate tradition. In the search for vividness and intensity I have made use of the machine as others have of the nude body or the still life. –Fernand Léger, 1925

He painted The City in 1919, soon after he returned to Paris from his wartime service. Plunging eagerly into city life, he experimented in a wide range of media during the 1920s. Léger was especially interested in the performing arts, and designed sets and costumes for two ballets: Skating Rink (1921–22) and Creation of the World (1923).

In 1923–24 Léger collaborated with several artists to produce and direct an experimental film, Ballet mécanique (may-cah-neek), or Mechanical Ballet. With its quickly changing images, this film had no story line or script. The American composer George Antheil created a truly radical musical accompaniment for Ballet mécanique, which was scored not for human performers but for sixteen player pianos, three airplane propellers, a siren, and seven electric bells. Although Léger loved Antheil’s jangling mechanical music, it could not be synchronized with the film footage during his lifetime.

Léger was excited by innovations in graphic design. He created illustrations with text for La fin du monde (The End of the World), a book written in 1919 by his friend, the Swiss writer Blaise Cendrars (sahn-DRAR). This story is a fantasy about the end of the world as filmed by a stone sculpture of an angel atop Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Throughout the 1920s Léger continued painting and also designed advertising posters, theater programs, and other publications.

While his artistic reputation was growing in France, Léger visited the United States several times in the 1930s, where he was captivated by the energy of New York City. Like many other European artists, he fled Europe during World War II, and lived in New York from 1940 to 1945. He returned to France after the war, where he resided for the rest of his life. After his death, a national museum dedicated to Léger was established in Biot (bee-ot), a town in southeastern France near the Mediterranean coast.