Nudes against a Red Background (1923) by Fernand Leger
Meaning of Tubist Painting of Two Figures

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Nudes against a Red Background
By Fernand Leger.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

Nudes against a Red Background (1923)


Analysis of Nudes against a Red Background
Explanation of other Modernist Classical Paintings


Name: Nudes against a Red Background (Two Figures) (1923)
Artist: Fernand Leger (1881-1955)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Female nudes
Movement: Classicism
Location: Kunstmuseum, Basel

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of pictures
by modern artists like
Fernand Leger, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.


Although he established himself as an important figure in modern art with abstract paintings like Nudes in the Forest (1909-10), Contrast of Forms (1913), and Soldiers Playing at Cards (1917), during the early 1920s, Leger shifted his focus away from Cubism (or his own Tubism) towards representational art in a neoclassical vein. See, for instance, The Mechanic (1920) and his later work Two Sisters (1935). In so doing he was responding to the Classical Revival (also known as the "Call to Order") which reverberated across France and elsewhere in the aftermath of World War I. This return to the principles of Greek sculpture and Roman fresco painting reflected a deeply-felt need to reconnect with the timeless ideals of antiquity, after the chaos of the war. It was also something of a counterweight to the anti-art demonstrations of the Dada movement, then active in Paris, Zurich, Berlin and New York. At any rate, a wide variety of modern artists abandoned their more extreme pre-war experiments, and followed the classicist revival. The best-known neoclassical paintings by Picasso, for instance, include: Two Nudes (1906); Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920); Woman in White (1923); and Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922).

Analysis of Nudes against a Red Background by Fernand Leger

This was the one figure painting produced by Leger in 1923, a year in which he was involved in many activities other than painting - writing, designing for the Ballets Suedois, and working on Marcel L'Herbier's film, L'Inhumaine. It was preceded by a small oil of the torso of the larger figure, and a squared-up drawing, both of which are dated 1922.



Nudes against a Red Background initiated a new 'pure' manner in Leger's figure paintings. The nudes derive from those in Three Women ("Le Grand Dejeuner") (1921, MOMA, New York), but where the earlier painting had dazzled with its complex decorative patterns and its constant shifts in perspective, the later painting is dramatic in its simplicity. Although the figures are mechanistic, and lock together so tightly and so perfectly that they look like parts of the same smoothly working machine, they are less specifically modern than the nudes in "Le Grand Dejeuner". They are simply objects of contemplation, similar to the timeless life paintings executed by every student of academic art at the time. Here Leger draws closer to the classicism of Pablo Picasso in Large Bather (1921, Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris), and away from the 'Cubist' classicism of the Purists or of Juan Gris (1887-1927). Perhaps he is closest of all to Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) in the complete absence of mood or expression, and in his pursuit of an absolute compositional and technical finality.

The picture could, indeed, be likened to an icon painting, the brilliant, almost magical, red standing in for the sacred gold; and like an icon it has the authority of the unalterable. The art critic Teriade (Stratis Eleftheriades) (1889-1983) hailed the new simplicity of Leger's figure paintings of 1923-4 as the climax of his classicism: "The static, monumental figures are comparable to the figures in Greek art in their silent and inexpressive plenitude. They mark a great step towards the essential, towards definitive simplicity. They represent the abandonment of dynamism and the search for form that will be calm, stripped, secret." He concluded: "The admirable unity of their forms coincides with the sobriety of their colours to convey a sensation of balance; and the style becomes that of the Great Tradition (le style devient grand)." (Fernand Leger, Paris, 1928)

With reason, Nudes against a Red Background has been compared to Roman mosaics from the Baths of Caracalla, which show muscular, pugilistic athletes silhouetted against plain grounds. (These mosaics had been reproduced in L'Esprit Xouzeau in December 1921.)

In 1924, along with Amedee Ozenfant (1886-1966), Leger founded his own art school - the Academie de l'Art Moderne - where he taught until 1939. He also explored many different types of art, including mural painting, film-making, sculpture and stained glass art. He also travelled several times to America, where he taught during World War II before returning to France in 1945. He continued working up until his death in 1955.

Explanation of other Modernist Classical Paintings


The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1905) National Gallery, London; Museum of Art, Philadelphia; Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.

Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900)
J Paul Getty Museum, LA.


The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913)
Tate Collection, London.

Song of Love (1914)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914)
Private Collection.


The Drunken Gentleman (1916)
Private Collection.


• For the meaning of other modernist neoclassical paintings, see: Homepage.

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