Fernand Leger
Biography of French Cubist Painter, Sculptor, Socialist Artist.

Pin it


Fernand Leger (1881-1955)


Training as an Artist
Cubism (and Leger's Tubism)
Contrast of Forms
World War I
Mechanical Art
Socialist Poster-Style Art

NOTE: For analysis of works by modernist painters like Fernand Leger,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

See: Abstract Paintings: Top 100.
See: Abstract Art Movements.


An important figure in French painting, the artist Joseph Fernand Henri Leger was one of the giants of early 20th century modern art. Because of a strong belief in the social function of art and architecture, he strove to create a new "democratic art" for and about ordinary people. Thus his oil paintings typically include strong simple imagery, and feature images of blue-collar workers at work or leisure, along with the machines and objects of their environment. Look out for his sophisticated spatial and colour schemes. As well as paintings, Leger also produced excellent drawings, decorative murals, stage-sets, poster art, tapestries and films. He was also known as the fourth key member of Cubism, after Picasso (1881-1973), Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Juan Gris (1887-1927). Now seen as one of the top modern artists of the 20th century in France, his greatest works include: Contrast of Forms (1913, Guggenheim Museum, New York), Soldiers Playing at Cards (1917, Kroller-Muller State Museum, Otterlo), and The Mechanic (1920, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa). NOTE: For Leger's influence on 20th century classicism, see: Classical Revival in modern art (c.1900-30). For sample works, see: Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Nudes against a Red Background (1923, Kunstmuseum, Basel); and Two Sisters (1935, Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin).

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For other semi-abstract works like,
those produced by Leger, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

For an explanation
, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.


Training as an Artist

Fernand Leger came from the Basse-Normandie region of France, where his father was a cattle farmer. He trained initially as an architect (1897-1899) before moving to Paris, where he earned a living doing architectural drawings. After his compulsory military service (1902-1903), he attended the School of Decorative Arts. At the same time he applied for entry to the French Academy of Fine Art (Ecole des Beaux-Arts) but his application was rejected. In the event, he studied at the Academy as a non-official student, passing what he called "three empty and useless years" studying under the highly academic painter/sculptor Jean-Leon Gerôme (briefly) and others. He also studied at the Academie Julian in Paris.

From 1906 he devoted himself to his artistic career, being initially influenced - as were most art students - by French Impressionism: as in My Mother's Garden (1905). In 1907, he visited the celebrated retrospective exhibtion for Paul Cezanne at the Salon d'Automne, after which his painting began to feature a new emphasis on drawing and geometry.

Cubism (and Leger's Tubism)

In 1909 he rented a studio in Montparnasse where he came into contact with other exponents of avant-garde art, like the sculptors Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), Marc Chagall (1887-1980), Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) and Chaim Soutine (1893-1943). Having already absorbed a number of ideas from Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Leger now incorporated Cubism into his work. However, while contributing significantly to the Cubist idiom (with its disjointed, forms, he did so in his own singular fashion. As far as Analytical Cubism was concerned, for instance, he avoided the use of fragmented elements (the approach adopted by Picasso, Braque and Gris), preferring instead to construct his compositions from bold tubular shapes (in a style dubbed "Tubism"). This is exemplified by his Nudes in the Forest (1909-10), Village in the Forest (1914, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY), and The Smoking Soldier (1916, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf). He also exhibited at the modern art gallery of Leonce Rosenberg (1879-1947).


Contrast of Forms

As for Synthetic Cubism, typically characterized by the incorporation of collage and papier colles into the painting, Leger avoided this almost entirely, favouring instead an increasingly abstract art, featuring conical, cube-like forms within rough areas of primary colours plus green, black and white, as exemplified by Contrast of Forms (1913). His divergence from the Cubist mainstream (and his receptiveness to ideas propounded by the Italian Futurists) was also illustrated by his membership - along with artists Jacques Villon, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Jean Metzinger, among others - in the Cubist splinter group known as the Section d'Or group). Leger was influenced during this time by Italian Futurism, and by Robert Delaunay's Orphism, and his paintings, from then until 1914, became increasingly abstract. (See also: abstract painters.)

World War I: Effect on Leger's Art

World War I would have a profound effect on Leger's work. He spent two years at the front, completed a number of sketches of guns and soldiers (eg. Soldier with a Pipe, 1916) and was severely gassed at Verdun. But the experience impacted on his art in two important ways. First, his encounter with a wide range of soldiers from all walks of life led him to decide that henceforth he would create art that was accessible (recognizable) to everyone. Second, the sheer power and performance of war-machines like large artillery pieces convinced him of the role that machines would play in the creation of a new post-war world. See for example, his painting Soldiers Playing at Cards (1917) with its images of robot-like, monsters.

Leger's Mechanical Art

Thus at the war's end, Leger began his "mechanical period" of painting, in which his figures and images were cast in tubular and machine-like forms: as in The City (1919, Philadelphia Museum of Art) and The Mechanic (1920, Art Gallery of Ontario). Mechanical however did not necessarily mean geometric. For example, his Two Women Holding a Pot of Flowers (1920, Private Collection) is a typical example of how Leger modelled the female form. His enthusiasm for this style was both shared and influenced by his artist friends Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and Amedee Ozenfant (1886-1966), the joint-founders of Purism - a rational, mathematically-based art style which aimed to update the dryer pre-war aesthetic of Cubism. Another good example of Leger's Purist approach is his still-life, The Siphon (1924) and Still Life With Arm (1927). In 1921 he also produced a series of animated landscapes (paysages animes) echoing the canvases of the naive painter Henri Rousseau, "Le Douanier" (1844-1910), whom Leger much admired.

Leger's Socialist Poster Art

During the mid-1920s, Leger opted for bold poster-style contrasts of colour and form, often managing to combine the classical with the modern, as in Nude on a Red Background (1927), which features a monumental, expressionless woman. He used a similar style (from 1925 onwards in his mural painting, resorting to flat areas of colour that appear to advance or recede. Compare, for instance, his 1930s socialist-style painting The Two Sisters (1935, Nationalgalerie, Berlin) - which was designed to express solidarity amongst anonymous members of a mass society - with Two Woman Holding a Pot of Flowers (1920, Private Collection).

These inter-war years also saw Leger expand his artistic activities beyond easel-art into design (for the theatre and cinema) as well as film-making. In 1923 he designed a set for Marcel L'Herbier's film L'Inhumaine (The Inhuman One), and the following year he collaborated with Man Ray and other in the production of the Futurist-inspired film, Ballet Mecanique (Mechanical Ballet).

By the end of the 1920s, Leger's reputation had spread across the Atlantic. In 1931, Leger visited New York City to complete a commission to decorate Nelson Rockefeller's apartment, and in 1935, New York's Museum of Modern Art MOMA hosted an exhibition of his work.


From 1940 to 1945, Leger lived in the United States, where he took up a Professorship at Yale University. He also produced important works like Three Musicians (1945, Museum of Modern Art, New York). After the war he returned to France and joined the Communist Party. His art became less abstract and he produced a number of large-scale figurative works such as The Great Parade (1954, Guggenheim NY). His other projects included stained glass art, as well as tapestry art (eg. for the church at Audincourt, 1951) and a work of mosaic art for Caracas University (1954). He also explored book illustration, mural painting, polychrome ceramic sculpture, as well as set and costume design. In 1952, three years before his death, two of his murals were installed in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations.


Although some art historians assert that no other 20th century artist has participated in or responded like Leger to so many modern art movements (eg. Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Purism, De Stijl and Neo-Plasticism, Surrealism, Neo-Classicism and Social Realism), others maintain that his self-styled working-class art was too harsh to resonate with ordinary people - a point perhaps underscored by the general popularity of the post-Leger Pop-Art movement. Even so, his 'tubism' style influenced several contemporaries - including the Art Deco society portraitist Tamara de Lempicka (c.1895-1980) - and his value as an artist remains high: in November 2003, his painting, Woman in Red and Green sold for $22.5 million dollars.


Regarded as one of the great 20th century painters, Fernand Leger's works hang in many of the world's best art museums, including: the Museum of Modern Art MOMA, New York; the Guggenheim, New York; the National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris; and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa.

• For more biographies of modern French artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more information about modern art, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.