Trois femmes à la table rouge was created at the dawning of the Roaring Twenties. The picture exemplifies the stylistic refinement and sleek, linear sophistication that characterized the era. Léger’s highly mechanized rendering of three women positioned at a table is one of the most compelling renditions of the theme that would ultimately give rise to the grand painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Le Grand Déjeuner (fig. 2). Léger was renowned for his series paintings, from his Contrastes de formes in the 1910s to his Constructeurs of the 1950s, but the paintings of the Le Grand Déjeuner series are his most recognizable works and the standard bearer of the streamlined, Modernist aesthetic that defined the avant-garde movement known as Purism during the early 1920s. The present picture is a superb example of the stylistic themes that dominate this period of his career.
Léger was celebrated among the Parisian avant-garde as one of the original Cubists, along with Picasso and Braque, but his painting took a new direction after the war. What he had witnessed on the battlefront had forced him to re-prioritize his artistic objective so that clarity of form, or respect for modern life, would reign supreme in his compositions. "I had broken down the human body, so I set about putting it together again," Leger would recall of this period. "I wanted a rest, a breathing space. After the dynamism of the mechanical period, I felt a need for the stativity of large figures" (quoted in Fernand Léger, Man in the New Age (exhibition catalogue), Arken Museum of Modern Art, 2005, p. 20). By the 1920s, the severe abstraction of his pre-war compositions gave way to streamlined figuration, and his paintings depicted the human form amidst a booming industrial era. His most significant advancement towards this objective came with his series, Le Grand Déjeuner, in which the figures of women become central to his compositional narrative.
In Trois femmes à la table rouge, the subject of three women sharing a meal exemplifies the ease of living made possible in the age of modernity. Stylistically, it is a work that encompasses the formal principles of high Modernism and introduces the themes that would dominate his paintings in the years to come. In this painting, large geometric forms are stacked against each other, giving the composition smoothness and flatness while maintaining depth through the dynamic interplay of shapes and forms. Throughout this series Léger experimented with degrees of abstraction, compartmentalizing and reconfiguring the bodies but never loosing sight of their definining silhouettes (figs. 3, 4). In a related work and in the present picture, the smooth circles and soft curves of the women are contrasted by the straight edges and rectangles that compose the background.
With Trois femmes à la table rouge, Léger has encapsulated the concerns of the French avant-garde and their attempt to “call to order” their art after the Great War. Like Picasso, who also reintroduced figures into his painting at this time, Léger focuses on the beauty of linear precision. Using sharp outlining and solid formations to compose the bodies of this figures, he emphasizes the legibility and clarity of each woman in a manner that calls to mind the neo-classical beauties of the great French painters of the early 19th century. Indeed, Léger, as well as Picasso, was concerned with aligning himself with the artists of his great Latinate past. The present work in particular is reminiscent of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Odalisque en Grisaille, both for its use of muted grays and for its orderly and beautifully linear compositional style. As such, it “reflects Léger’s urge towards a new classicism; by taking up a theme sanctioned by tradition, he hoped to integrate art history, as well as past time, into the present” (Robert Herbert, Léger’s Le Grand Déjeuner, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Detroit, 1980, p. 13).