In Étude Pour "Les Plongeurs", Léger explores the seminal themes that defined his series of diver pictures: the separation of color and form and the blending of the figurative and abstract. Discussing his intent with the subject of Les Plongeurs, the artist explained that he “attempted to translate the character of the human body moving freely in space without touching the ground... [and] separated color from drawing and liberated it from shape by arranging it in large color fields without forcing it to follow the outlines of objects. It thus retains its entire force, as does the drawing” (quoted in André Warnod, “’L’Amérique ce n’est pas un pays, c’est un monde,’ dit Fernand Léger,” in Arts, vol. 49, Paris, January 4, 1946, p. 2).
Léger executed this study during his brief exile in the United States during World War II. As he recalls, "In 1940, I was working on my divers in Marseilles. Five or six men diving. I left for the United States and one day went to a swimming pool there. The divers were no longer five or six but two hundred at once. Just try and find yourself! Whose is that head? Whose is that leg? Whose are those arms? I hadn't a clue. So I scattered the limbs in my picture" (quoted in Werner Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, Cologne, 1977, p. 110). Léger's vision of vitality and dynamism in America appears in the fluid motion of interwoven bodies against the backdrop of bright contrasts of color.
Léger and Nelson Rockefeller first met in 1938, when Rockefeller commissioned Léger to paint a fireplace mural in his New York City apartment at 810 Fifth Avenue (see fig. 1). It was here that the first substantial collaboration between patron and artist would take place. As stated by Rockefeller, “…our friends Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger accepted commissions to undertake murals. Matisse did the mural in Paris from full-scale drawings of the fireplace, but Léger came over to New York and actually did the painting in the apartment. I used to watch Léger with fascination as he painted and the details of the murals unfolded. After he had finished, we liked it so much that we persuaded him to do additional murals for the circular stairwell and the hallways… Léger was a wonderful human being, we remained friends until his death” (quoted in William S. Liebermann, The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection: Masterpieces of Modern Art, New York, 1981, p. 16). The mutual respect that Rockefeller and Léger had for each other is exemplified by the inscription on the verso of the drawing "From a great painter to a great Gov."