Fernand Léger, 1881-1955

By Lori Stranger

Fernand Léger,  Soldiers Playing Cards,  1917, oil on canvas, Kröller-Müller State Museum, Ontario.  https://krollermuller.nl/en/fernand-leger-soldiers-playing-cards

Fernand Léger, Soldiers Playing Cards, 1917, oil on canvas, Kröller-Müller State Museum, Ontario.

Fernand Léger was born on the 4th of February 1881 in Argentan, France. Although primarily a painter, Léger worked in a variety of media ranging from ceramics to film and theatre.  Léger's style drastically changed throughout his career, developing from a purely abstract interest in forms to a more figural focus. Léger exemplifies the complexities of the twentieth century and the significant affect of one's cultural context on artistic practice.

The 1907 exhibition of  Paul Cézanne’s oeuvre at the Salon d'Automne markedly inspired Léger to pursue a more Cubist style.  His eventual settlement at Montparnasse further encouraged a Cubist fragmentation of forms after encountering artists such as Robert Delaunay, Marc Chagall and the crucial pioneers of Cubism: Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.  Léger's 1909, Le Compotier sur la Table illustrates his emerging Cubist style and fragmentary interest in form. 

World War One directly affected Léger, who served on the front lines as a military engineer.  Departing from his earlier abstraction, Léger became increasingly interested in the human figure. Unlike Max Beckmann's disturbing nightmarish depictions of the war, such as, for example his 1919 The Night, Léger perhaps enables his fellow soldiers to become fascinating objects of study by depicting the resilience of humanity. The 1917, Card Game, depicts three soldiers depicted in bold primary colours and cylindrical forms involved in a card game.  The bright palette and relatively mundane subject neglects the horrors of war focusing on the bonds between soldiers. 

It can be said that Léger's experience of the war had an affect on his art for the rest of his life, encouraging an appreciation of modern life and the stability of the Industrial revolution after the chaos of war.  His 1921 Three Women renders three women with a machine-like solidity, despite their classicising nude appearance. The chic apartment interior embraces post-war affluence, celebrating technological production with mechanised figures and geometric shapes.

By the mid 1920s, Léger became interested in other artistic mediums.  Encouraged by his close friend, Le Corbusier, Léger began to design sets and costumes for the ballet and theatre.  The 1926 film, Mechanical Ballet, written, directed and produced by Léger, demonstrates his versatility and the 20th century's increasing freedom to move between mediums.  

At the onset of World War Two, Léger retreated to the United States.  Between 1940-1945, he significantly influenced painters of the New York School, bringing French artistic styles to an international forum. His lectures at Yale University further ensure that his artistic style and legacy remains influential to this day.

Léger died on the 17th of August 1955 in Gif-sir-Yvette, France.  His versatile career influenced a multitude of artists such as Henry Moore.  His bold use of colour has been argued to greatly inspire the Pop Art movement of the later twentieth century. 


"Fernand Léger", The Art Story, accessed 4th February 2019.


"Fernand Léger", Britannica,  accessed 4th February 2019.