“The realistic value of a work of art is completely independent of any imitative character […]. Pictorial realism is the simultaneous ordering of three great plastic components: Lines, Forms and Colours.”
Fernand Léger, ‘The Origins of Painting and Its Representational Value’, 1913

Painted in 1914, Nature morte belongs to Léger’s celebrated series of abstract compositions, many of which were titled Contraste de formes and which he developed between 1913 and 1914. These works – composed of boldly outlined, overlapping shapes and coloured with strong tones of reds, blues, yellows and greens – were Léger’s definitive response to the call for a new art for the modern age.

The first decade of the twentieth century would change the course of art history for ever. From the ‘shock’ of the Fauve works presented at the 1905 Salon d’automne there followed a period of dramatic change with Braque and Picasso’s development of Cubism from 1907 and then the first Futurist manifesto published in 1910. It was from this context of innovation and experimentation that Léger’s Contrastes de formes were born.

(Left) Pablo Picasso, Nature morte aux bouteilles de liqueur, August 1909, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2020 / © 2020. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence (Centre) Georges Braque, Compotier et cartes, oil, pencil and charcoal on canvas, 1913, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 / © 2020. Photo Scala, Florence (Right) Fernand Leger, Constraste de formes, 1913, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 / © 2020. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

All these artists – though very diverse in style and theory – were united by their desire to break with the art of the past and with traditional forms of visual representation and to produce an art that responded to the world in which they found themselves. Whilst Léger first began incorporating aspects of these new styles into his painting around 1910, it was not until 1913 that he fully clarified his artistic vision. In a lecture given in May 1913 Léger outlined his key ideas about contemporary art: ‘Present-day life, more fragmented and faster moving than life in previous eras, has had to accept as its means of expression an art of dynamic divisionism; and the sentimental side, the expression of the subject (in the sense of popular expression), has reached a critical moment [...]. The modern conception is not simply a passing abstraction, valid only for a few initiates; it is the total expression of a new generation whose needs it shares and whose aspirations it answers’ (quoted in Dorothy Kosinski (ed.), Fernand Léger, 1911-1924, The Rhythm of Modern Life, Munich & New York, 1994, pp. 66-67).

“If pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated it […]. The view through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things.”
Fernand Léger, ‘Contemporary Achievements in Painting’, 1914

Gino Severini, Still Life (Centrifugal Expansion of Colours), 1916, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 / © 2020. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

It was during this period that Léger refined his artistic vision. The works from 1913-14 both state Léger’s reliance on Cubism, and profess his independence from it; in them he adopts a Cubist disintegration of form but his shapes have a uniquely volumetric character and there is an invocation of the mechanical in his interlocking forms that is missing from Cubism and in fact suggests the influence of the Futurist painters who Léger would have seen at the Bernheim-Jeune exhibition of 1912. In fact, the contrast between volumetric shapes within a two-dimensional plane and the use of colour was something suggested to Léger by the work of Cézanne.

Paul Cézanne, Nature morte au panier. Fruits posés sur un table, 1888, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris © 2020. Photo Josse/Scala, Florence

As Jack Flam writes: ‘It was Cézanne, Léger wrote in 1913 while he was painting the Contraste de formes pictures, who has "understood everything that was incomplete in traditional painting" and who had "felt the necessity for a new form and draftmanship closely linked to the new colour". And it was Cézanne, Léger wrote the following year, who "was the only one of the Impressionists to lay his finger on the deeper meaning of plastic life, because of his sensitivity to the contrasts of forms"’ (Jack Flam in Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), Acquavella Galleries Inc., New York, 1987, p. 10).

Robert Delaunay, Fenêtres ouvertes simultanément (1ère partie 3ème motif), 1912, oil on canvas, Tate Modern, London

Equally, Léger’s use of colour – which is a distinctive characteristic of the Contrastes de formes – runs in parallel to Delaunay’s experiments with colour and form; indeed Léger’s work acts as a fulcrum between Braque and Picasso’s experiments on the one hand, and the Orphic Cubism of the Delaunays and Kupka on the other.

In these works Léger moved between a purely abstract form of expression and a style that hints at the figurative as he explored what realistic art might mean for his generation: ‘The idea of a ‘pure art,’ devoid of objective representation, was hotly discussed by artists and writers in Paris in 1912-13. Apollinaire announced the death of ‘the subject’ in 1912. It was already implicit in late Symbolist theory, virtually explicitly in Picasso’s painting of the summer of 1910, and widespread by the end of 1913. Painters with temperaments and expressive aims as diverse as those of Kupka, Mondrian, Delaunay, Kandinsky and of course Léger himself had made non-objective paintings before the end of that year […]. For Léger, however, art was almost always an expression of the material reality of life, and in this sense he remained in harmony with the essential realism of Cubism’ (Douglas Cooper & Gary Tinterow, The Essential Cubism, Braque, Picasso & Their Friends, 1907-1920 (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1983, p. 214).

In Nature morte the relationship between abstraction and figuration is deftly balanced. The still-life is composed of an assortment of shapes, mostly cylinders, cones and spheres marked out in bright reds, greens, blues and brilliant whites. Certain objects are discernible; the forms resolve to reveal the suggestion of a table, perhaps a jug or the spout of a cafetière, and in the background the outline of what might be houses glimpsed through a window. Yet almost despite the figuration suggested by the title and the presence of these objects, the elements of the composition seem to pull towards abstraction. The forms explode out of the centre of the composition with a chaos and simultaneity that deliberately counters the organised, stasis of the still life subject; the painting unravels its own meaning. This is a characteristic that Carolyn Lanchner has observed of the 1914 paintings: ‘The series of Contrastes de formes of 1913-14 exemplifies Léger’s pictorial strategies. The earliest of these are secured in history as the first wholly abstract paintings to emerge from Cubism; curiously, however, these paintings devoid of recognisable imagery have the unsettling effect of soliciting the viewer to find representational meanings. Paradoxically, the Contrastes de formes of the following year devoted to the traditional genres of still life, landscape and the human form insist on their near-abstraction’ (Carolyn Lanchner, ‘The Art and Artistry of Fernand Léger’, in MoMA, vol. 1, no. 1, March-April 1998, pp. 7-8).

Fernand Léger in Constantin Brancusi’s studio, circa 1920. Photograph by Constantin Brancusi © Succession Brancusi - All rights reserved. ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 / Photo (C) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI

Part of this dynamism comes from Léger’s technique and the speed and surety with which he worked these canvases. He began with the application of a grey priming layer over which he applied the black lines that establish the volume of the forms in single, quick strokes, colour followed as the final stage. Describing Léger’s process for another still-life from this year Christopher Green writes: ‘The frequent superimposition at their edges of colour patches over outlines makes it clear that […] colour was indeed a response to the preliminary stimulus of outline, its application following as a separate stage in the process of execution […] the colours taken straight from the tube, and then finally, when they are nearly dry, the highlights are added to give the paintings a completely solid, mechanical and dissonant presence’ (C. Green, Léger and the Avant-garde, New Haven & London, 1976, p. 90). One of the key elements of the new style that emerged was this speed of execution and the contingent rawness that is so characteristic of these works. Green notes this as integral to the spirit of constant inventiveness that makes these paintings so uniquely important: ‘They conveyed by their very coarseness, the spontaneous, open-ended nature of his pictorial ambition; the fact that his work continued without conclusions, each phase creating stimulus for the next – a perpetual becoming’ (ibid., p. 91).

The picture gallery at Maison La Roche. Photograph Francis Yerbury © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020

One of the early owners of this painting was the collector Raoul La Roche. Born in Switzerland, La Roche moved to Paris in 1911 where he became close friends with Le Corbusier and began to build what would become a preeminent collection of Cubist and Purist art. The core of the collection included major paintings by Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger, many of which were acquired at the Kahnweiler sequestration sales of the early 1920s. By 1928 La Roche owned over 150 works many of which were displayed at the Maison La Roche, the home and art gallery designed for him by Le Corbusier. Today much of his legendary collection resides in museums; as part of series of bequests he left works to the Musée national d’art moderne in Paris, the Kunthaus Zurich and over 90 works to the Kunstmuseum in his birthplace, Basel.

The Evolution of Léger’s Cubist Style
  • 1909-10
  • 1911
  • 1912
  • 1913
  • 1914
  • 1919
  • 3618946 Nude figures in a Wood, 1911 (oil on canvas) by Leger, Fernand (1881-1955); 301x245 cm; Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller, Otterlo, Netherlands; Photo © Raffaello Bencini; French, in copyright. PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist\'s copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.
    Nus dans la forêt
    Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 / Photo © Raffaello Bencini / Bridgeman Image
  • akg-images
    Léger, Fernand 1881–1955. “Les fumeurs” (Die Raucher), Dezember 1911 – Januar 1912. Öl auf Leinwand, 129,2 × 96,5 cm. Schenkung Solomon R. Guggenheim. Inv. Nr. 38.521 New York, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum.
    Les fumeurs
    The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 / Image © akg-images
  • PWI108597 Woman in Blue, 1912 (oil on canvas) by Leger, Fernand (1881-1955); 193x130 cm; Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland; © Peter Willi; French, in copyright. PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist\'s copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.
    La femme en bleu
    Kunstmuseum, Basel (formerly collection Raoul La Roche)

    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 / © Peter Willi / Bridgeman Images
  • Contraste de formes
    Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 / Image (c) The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950 / Bridgeman Images
  • akg-images
    Léger, Fernand 1881–1955. “L’Escalier” (Die Treppe), 1914. Öl auf Leinwand, 81 × 100 cm. Schenkung Raoul La Roche. Inv. Nr. 2300 Basel, Kunstmuseum.
    Kunstmuseum, Basel (formerly collection Raoul La Roche)

    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 / Image © akg-images
  • La ville
    Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020 / Image © A.E. Gallatin Collection / Bridgeman Images