Lot 12
  • 12

Fernand Léger

3,800,000 - 4,500,000 GBP
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  • Fernand Léger
  • signed F. Léger and dated 49 (lower right)

  • oil on canvas

  • 130 by 96cm.
  • 51 by 38 1/4 in.


Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Paris
Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Mr & Mrs Armand G. Erpf, New York (acquired from the above in March 1954)
Thence by descent to the present owners


Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Fernand Léger, Exposition rétrospective 1905-1949, 1949, no. 40
London, Tate Gallery, Fernand Léger, 1950, no. 46
New York, Buchholz Gallery, Léger, Recent paintings & Le Cirque, 1950, no. 16, illustrated in the catalogue
Berne, Kunsthalle, Fernand Léger, 1952, no. 86


Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger, Catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre peint, 1949-1951, Paris, 2003, no. 1318, illustrated p. 16

Catalogue Note

Boldly modeled and executed with an extraordinarily expressive palette, La Jeune fille à l'échelle is one of the artist's definitive compositions of the late 1940s. In contrast to the rarefied and elitist aesthetic of postwar abstraction, these paintings were intended to appeal to the public with a more comprehensible, figurative style and subject matter. Léger was drawn to depictions of dancers, musicians and circus performers. Katherine Kuh wrote about Léger's attraction to the theme of entertainers, 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 dance halls and the people's quarters 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).

Acrobats are visible in many of his works, including Composition au cheval blanc (fig. 3) where the viewer can once again see the ladder in the lower centre. The present work is another version of the larger composition from 1948 entitled L'Acrobate et sa partenaire (fig. 1). In the 1948 canvas, the young girl is depicted as the acrobat's partner where she forms the sole vertical anchoring element of the entire composition. However, in the present composition, the young girl has been extracted to become the primary subject which dominates the canvas.

These themes were not only found in Léger's mature work. Peter de Francia examines this more closely: 'The subject of acrobats, circuses, of the grouping together of those themes of leisure which Léger had always envisaged as the tangible symbols of man's freedom are to be found in the very beginning of his work and throughout his paintings: Les Acrobates dans le cirque of 1918, Les Deux acrobats of 1921, Les Danseuses acrobats of 1930, Les  Acrobates aux perroquets of 1936 and Les Saltimbanques of 1939-40.' (P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven & London, 1983, p. 248).

During his stay in the United States, where he lived during the Second World War, Léger found himself drawn to the cyclists he saw on New York's busy streets. They, too, must have represented a similar physical freedom that the entertainers symbolised for him. He even compares the cyclists' costumes to those of acrobats. Léger told the Museum of Modern Art curator James Johnson Sweeney that his series of cyclists were inspired by the types of people he saw in the United States: 'Girls in sweaters... in shorts dressed more like acrobats in a circus than one would ever come across on a Paris street. If I had only seen girls dress in 'good taste' here I would have never painted my cyclist series....' (quoted in Fernand Léger, Paris- New York (exhibition catalogue), Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2008, p. 98). In Les Loisirs sur fond rouge (fig. 4) the costumes of the women and young boys are truly those of acrobats, not cyclists. Moreover, the figures in this composition, especially the woman standing on her bicycle in the centre right, echo the face and body of the young girl in the present work.

La Jeune fille à l'échelle exemplifies Léger's firm commitment to neoclassical figuration and his fascination with the expressive  potential of colour – the two defining stylistic factors of his work during the last decade of his life. Here he has rendered the pictorial elements with a sharp clarity that is characteristic of his mature work, using a vivid plane of primary colour for the background, and articulating the pictorial elements' contours with bold, black lines. The colours, in keeping with his works of this period, are fully saturated, voluminous and substantial. Portrayed against a monochromatic background, the figure retains her statuesque dignity and achieves a monumental presence.


Fig. 1, Fernand Léger, L'Acrobate et sa partenaire, 1948, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London

Fig. 2, Fernand Léger in his New York studio, circa 1944-45. Photograph by Lilly Joss

Fig. 3, Fernand Léger, Composition au cheval blanc, 1945, oil on canvas, Private Collection

Fig. 4, Fernand Léger, Les Loisirs sur fond rouge, 1948-49, oil on canvas, Musée national d'Art Moderne, Paris