Lot 9
  • 9

Fernand Léger

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • Fernand Léger
  • Les Trois musiciens
  • Signed F. Léger and dated 32 (lower right)
  • Oil on canvas
  • 28 3/4 by 28 3/4 in.
  • 72 by 72 cm


Nadia Léger, Paris (by 1957)

Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris

Valentine Dudensing, New York

Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris

Mr. & Mrs. Edwin E. Hokin, Highland Park, Illinois (acquired from the above in May 1960 and thence by descent)


Lyon, Musée de Lyon, Fernand Léger, 1955, no. 46, illustrated in the catalogue

Zürich, Kunsthaus, Fernand Léger, 1881-1955, 1957 (not listed in the exhibition catalogue)

Basel, Kunsthalle, Fernand Léger, 1957 (not listed in the exhibition catalogue)

Munich, Haus der Kunst, Fernand Léger 1881-1955, 1957, no. 72

Copenhagen, Charlottenborg, Fernand Léger, Malerier, tegninger og grafik, 1959, no. 14


Christian Zervos, Fernand Léger. Oeuvres de 1905 à 1952, Paris, 1952, illustrated p. 73 (as dating from 1936-43 and with the measurements 162 by 130 cm)

Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger, vivre dans le vrai, Paris, 1987, discussed p. 148

Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, 1932-1937, Paris, 1996, no. 792, illustrated p. 7


The canvas is lined. Under ultra-violet light, there is a small crack which has been retouched slightly in the shoulder of the base player in the upper left and some florescence on the left and right sides which correspond to tiny white chips in the yellow. There are a couple lines of craquelure in the suit of the base player. Otherwise, this work is in good condition.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

A vivid depiction of the spirit of its era, Les Trois musiciens personifies the Jazz Age and "joie de vivre" of Paris in the years leading up to the war.  It is the "premier état," or first version of the celebrated painting in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Léger took his inspiration here from the performers at the bals musettes, where working-class Parisians would come on any given Saturday and Sunday afternoon to dance to the melody of an accordionist, the harmony of a horn player and the rhythmic thump of a bass player (fig. 3).  Sometimes accompanied by a chanteuse like Edith Piaf, their music resonated in the dance halls of hard-scrabble neighborhoods throughout the city and became anthems of the urban life.  

The idea for the present composition came to Léger in the 1920s when he and the poet Blaise Cendrars were frequently attending these performances on the rue de Lappe.  Going to the bals musettes was a novelty for the two men, both prominent in their fields by this point, and offered social exchanges to which they otherwise would not have had access.  It was on one of these occasions that they made the acquaintance of an accordionist, who invited them back to his home for a modest meal.  Léger was so struck by the character of this young musician -- so hard working, so earnest -- that it lingered in his memory and inspired a series of paintings and drawings over the next two decades.  In the 1950s, Katherine Kuh wrote about Léger's attraction to the theme of the musicians, noting that they offered him a subject out of his ordinary realm of existence: "Léger has always been attracted by popular places of entertainment, finding excellent raw material for his paintings in burlesque shows, dance halls and circuses. In this connection he says, 'I did not frequent popular dances halls and the people's quarter out of snobbism.  I used to go there because I had a real liking for the fellows and the girls of the district....  The fifteen-cent burlesque shows of Chicago still offer material.  It is only for the artist to select....." (K. Kuh, Léger, Urbana, 1953, p. 64).   

The present painting is one of four canvases that Léger devoted to the subject of the three musicians.  He conceived the image in a sketch in 1925, reworking the idea in oil four times between 1930 and 1944.  The first version, now at the Von der Heydt-Museum in Wuppertal (fig. 1), is an earth-toned rendition of the same figural ensemble depicted in the present work.   A nearly monochromatic version of the subject, painted between 1930 and 1934, was left unfinished and is currently in the collection of the Musée National Fernand Léger in Biot.  But the present composition from 1932 casts the trio against a punchy yellow background that brings them to life.  The zesty palette of this composition worked so well at evoking the zip and zing of the music and the electric lights of the dancehall that Léger painted another colorful version of Les Trois musiciens during his time in America in the 1940s.  That composition, which has become an emblem of mid-century jazz, now hangs in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (fig. 2).  Katherine Kuh's stylistic analysis of the MoMA picture equally applies to the present work: "Possibly the influence of American folk art, witty, direct and human, added to that of Douanier Rousseau, partly accounts for this painting of three music hall figures, so solidly welded into a group that instruments, arms and heads resemble a single interlaced form.  One feels that nothing should be added, nothing removed.  Each necktie, hat and lapel plays a double role - first to characterize the musician, second to integrate the design"  (ibid.).

In the catalogue raisonné on Léger's paintings, Georges Bauquier classified the present work as the 'premier état,' inferring that it is the direct antecedent of the MoMA picture.  The 1930 oil at the Wuppertal Museum is classified simply as a study.  The distinction is significant: The present work is one of the first times that we see Léger devote so much of his canvas to vibrant color.  The vestiges of Purism and the shadowy gradations of his Surrealist-era compositions were slowly fading out of focus as he turned his artistic attention to the explosive power of a bright palette.  In the years that followed his completion of the present work, Léger would increasingly invest his large-formatted canvases with broad swathes of unmodulated color.  The present work marks one of his first and most successful applications of the technique.