Lot 11
  • 11

Fernand Léger

1,500,000 - 2,000,000 GBP
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  • Fernand Léger
  • oil on canvas
  • 89 by 130cm.
  • 35 by 51 1/8 in.


Douglas Cooper, London & Provence (acquired from the artist circa 1938-39)
Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris (acquired from the above by 1978)
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1984


London, Tate Gallery, Fernand Léger, 1950, no. 30
Montauban, Musée Ingres, Fernand Léger, 1977, no. 10, illustrated in the catalogue
Cologne, Kunsthalle, Fernand Léger: Das figürliche Werk, 1978, no. 18
Malines, Stad Mechelen, Culturell Centrum Burgemeester A. Spinoy, Fernand Léger, 1979, no. 43
Vascœuil, Château de Vascœuil, Fernand Léger, 1979, no. 2, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Berlin, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Fernand Léger, 1980-1981, no. 59, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Biot, Musée National Fernand Léger, Hommage à Fernand Léger, 1881-1981, 1981, no. 24, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Fernand Léger, 1981, no. 24, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
London, Edward Totah Gallery & Milan, Galleria Seno, F. Léger, Paintings, Gouaches, Drawings and Prints, 1983, no. 6, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Fernand Léger: Paris - New York, 2008, no. 50, illustrated in colour in the catalogue


Douglas Cooper, Fernand Léger et le nouvel espace, London, 1949, illustrated p. 114
Pierre Descargues, Fernand Léger, Paris, 1955, illustrated p. 99
Douglas Cooper und die Meister der Kubismus (exhibition catalogue), Kunstmuseum, Basel, 1987, illustrated in a photograph p. 20
Georges Bauquier, Catalogue Raisonne de l'œuvre peint, 1929-1931, Paris, 1995, no. 662, illustrated in colour p. 105


The canvas is relined and attached to a new stretcher. There are a few areas of retouching, mainly to the extreme framing edges and within the blue and dark red patches to the left of the figures, all visible under ultra-violet light. Apart from some craquelure, mainly to the brown pigment in the lower half of the composition and to the blue pigment towards the upper left corner and some slight frame wear to the edges, this work is in good condition. Colours: Overall fairly accurate in the printed catalogue illustration.
"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. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Painted in 1929, Composition aux deux danseuses is a vibrant and highly impressive example of Fernand Léger's influential post-war style. The combination of the dancing nudes and art-deco inspired abstract shapes shows the masterful manner in which Léger revitalised the cubist aesthetic. The remarkable surface texture employed by the artist, such as the vinyl sheen of the central form and the silkily twisting ribbon, are characteristic of the period. The highly stylised surfaces complement the abstract composition of the depicted forms, whether organic or mechanic, such as in La Joconde aux clés (fig.1). Philippe Büttner argues that 'In Léger, assemblage-like composition generally goes hand in hand with a paint application that eschews painterly effects, letting the individual compositional elements remain clearly legible as separate parts. The overall result is Léger's famous 'cool' style' (P. Büttner, Fernand Léger: Paris - New York, Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2008, p. 14).   

In the present work Léger successfully reintegrated the human form into his work. The artist experimented with monumental figures pared down to pure forms, such as La danse (fig. 2), which marked a change in direction after years of greater mechanisation and abstraction in his art. Léger noted that: 'As long as the human body is considered a sentimental or expressive value in painting, no new evolution in pictures of people will be possible. Its development has been hindered by the domination of the subject over the ages... In contemporary modern painting, the object must become the leading character and dethrone the subject. Then, in turn, if the person, the face, and the human body become objects, the modern artist will be offered considerable freedom. At this moment, it is possible for him to use the law of contrasts, which is the constructive law, with all its breadth. This law of contrasts is nothing new. If one looks at the past, one can observe that even if traditional painters did not use it, at least they had an inkling of it in the composition of their pictures' (Fernand Léger & E.F. Fry (ed.), Functions of Painting, London, 1973, p. 132).

Discussing the present work amongst others Douglas Cooper wrote: 'Then, in 1927, as if reacting against his own self-discipline, Léger began that great series of paintings known as Objects in Space. Gradually he exchanged the monumental for the living. The architectural elements disappeared and were replaced by scattered objects setting up a rhythm between themselves, while the space in which they moved was created by pushing the objects into the fore-ground and setting up a play of colours in the background. The objects are related to each other by means of carefully controlled chromatic values, by similar or opposing rhythms and by the use of lines of direction which weave in and out through the whole composition. Léger places his objects at just the right distance from each other: they are held there by virtue of the laws of harmony and rhythm [...] A pipe, a tree, a cog-wheel, an accordion, a bunch of keys, a straw hat or a pair of dancers - all have their rôle to play' (D. Cooper, op. cit., pp. XIV-XV). Other works from the series, such as Les Danseuses aux clés (fig. 3) are similarly composed and share the same equilibrium as the present work.

Léger's imagery from was period are strongly influenced by contemporary culture. In the present painting Cinema is a prominent theme, and is directly referenced in the photographic film-reel inspired shape on the left and by the rhythm and scope of the composition itself. Peter de Francia wrote: 'Léger had a passionate interest in the contemporary world and an insatiable curiosity as to the ideas and activities of artists and intellectuals outside his own country. [...] Parallel to his continuous work as a painter Léger was actively involved in the theatre and passionately interested in film. [...] Léger was to make use of both the imagery and, more importantly, certain spatial effects directly derived from film' and states that 'the 1929 painting of Composition aux deux danseuses makes use of elements directly related to the cinema screen. Heavy objects appear to float. Light ones plummet to earth. The static nature of the imagery is also given mobility through what is frequently an almost imperceptible giratory movement like that of slow motion film' (P. de Francia in F. Léger, Paintings, Gouaches, Drawings and Prints (exhibition catalogue), op. cit.).

In the late 1930s the influential art historian and collector Douglas Cooper acquired Composition aux deux danseuses from the artist. He included the work in his monograph on Léger written in 1949, Fernand Léger et le nouvel espace. They had known each other since the early thirties when Cooper had begun to amass one of the finest collections of Cubist art, befriending Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris in the process.

Fig. 1, Fernand Léger, La Joconde aux clés, 1930, oil on canvas, Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot

Fig. 2, Fernand Léger, La Danse, 1929, oil on canvas, Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble

Fig. 3, Fernand Léger, Les Danseuses aux clés, 1930, oil on canvas, Moderna Museet, Stockholm