Lot 12
  • 12

Fernand Léger

500,000 - 700,000 GBP
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  • Fernand Léger
  • Contraste de formes
  • signed F.L. and dated 13 (lower right)
  • gouache and brush and ink on paper
  • 51 by 64cm.
  • 20 1/8 by 25 1/4 in.


Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Paris

Galerie l'Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Paris

Galerie Percier, Paris

Alfred Richet, Paris (acquired in 1936. Sold: Sotheby's, London, 29th November 1994, lot 7)

Purchased at the above sale by the late owner


Paris, Galerie Louise Leiris, F. Léger, dessins et gouaches, 1909-1955, 1958, no. 5, illustrated in the catalogue

Paris, Galerie Louise Leiris, F. Léger, 55 œuvres 1913-1953, 1985, no. 1, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Fernand Léger, 1997, no. 5, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preussischer Kulturbesitz,  Linie, Licht und Schatten. Meisterzeichnungen und Skulpturen der Sammlung Jan und Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski, 1999, no. 146, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, The Timeless Eye. Master Drawings from the Jan and Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski Collection,1999, no. 156, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Miradas sin Tiempo. Dibujos, Pinturas y Esculturas de la Coleccion Jan y Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski, 2000, no. 186, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, La Passion du Dessin. Collection Jan et Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski, 2002, no. 186, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Vienna, Albertina, Goya bis Picasso. Meisterwerke der Sammlung Jan Krugier und Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski, 2005, no. 136, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Munich, Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Das Ewige Auge - Von Rembrandt bis Picasso. Meisterwerke aus der Sammlung Jan Krugier und Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski, 2007, no. 169, illustrated in colour in the catalogue


Jean Cassou & Jean Leymarie, Fernand Léger, Dessins et gouaches, Paris, 1972, no. 18, illustrated p. 30


Executed on buff coloured paper, supported with a thin sheet of Japan paper which is hinged to the mount at the upper corners. There are numerous artist's pinholes in all four corners and remnants of tape from previous mounting on the reverse of the edges. Apart from some mount staining around the edges and some slight discolouration to the paper, this work is in very good condition. Colours: In comparison to the printed catalogue illustration, the paper has a slightly less warm tonality and the black is softer in the original.
"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

In 1913 Léger executed a series of works entitled Contraste de formes, now acknowledged as his most important contribution to Modern Art. This revolutionary series, which consisted of some of the first abstract paintings, developed out of Léger's pursuit of the concept of 'Pure Art', painting devoid of reference to visual reality. The present work is an exceptional example of Léger’s dynamic cubist aesthetic. Between 1911 and 1914, Léger conceived a series of highly geometric works which explore the relationships of tone and shape through geometric abstraction (figs. 1 & 2). In these compositions he experimented radically with the plastic qualities of form, line and colour, replacing basic components of human anatomy with geometric shapes. Although still considered a Cubist by his association with Braque and Picasso (fig. 3), Léger's work paid homage to the age of the machine, much in the manner of his Futurist contemporaries Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini. He incorporated this mechanised aesthetic into his art in an attempt to reveal the vitality and beauty that was inherent in geometric form.

Taking Cézanne as a starting point and building on the innovations of Picasso and Braque, Léger created an entirely new abstract language. ‘Léger's early reputation rested upon the fact that he was able to develop his own version of Cubism, and one so original that it almost seemed as if it could have been invented without that of Picasso or Braque. Indeed so persuasive was the 'cubism' of Léger's, as it was called, that it alone probably would have insured him a place in the history of modern painting, even if he had not survived World War I... Like his contemporaries Picasso and Braque, Léger was enormously affected by and indebted to the art of Cézanne, whom he saw as a transitional figure between traditional and modern painting. 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).

In his essays of 1913 to 1923, Léger set out his pictorial aesthetic as epitomised in the Contraste de formes series of 1913. Explaining Léger's aims and quoting from his essays, Dorothy Kosinski wrote: ‘One essential tenet of this aesthetic was the equation “Contrast = dissonance, [achieving] a maximum of expressive effect”. This was Léger's battle-cry against traditional notions of pictorial realism which were bound to sentiment, representation and popular expressions of the subject... For him, the dynamic dissonance of form, line and colour was the delineation of, indeed, the direct result of, rupture and change in the modern world: "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"’ (D. Kosinski, Fernand Léger, 1911-1924, The Rhythm of Modern Life, Munich & New York, 1994, p. 17).

In an analysis of the genesis of the Contraste de formes, Christopher Green observed that these works were in fact ‘the result of the progressive metamorphosis of landscape ideas, a process which led ultimately to pictorial results so far from their origins and so compositionally free of any representational limitations that they achieved purity. This fact throws new light on the raison d'être behind Léger's attempt at 'pure painting', for it shows how a particular line of exploration, backed by a complete lack of interest in subject-matter per se, led him, as if by its own momentum, to such an extreme pictorial conclusion, and it is of great interest that at the beginning of this line of exploration lay not figure-painting, but landscape. […] However, the forms of landscape did not lend themselves so naturally to geometric solidification, and so, in order to achieve the degree of formal realization needed for a complete pictorial statement, Léger did not simplify the elements of the landscape, he remodelled them altogether and thus allowed them to lose contact finally with nature’ (C. Green. Léger and the Avant-garde. New Haven & London, 1976, pp. 67-68).

Whilst the iconography of Léger's Contraste de formes has distant landscape origins, they also contain strong figurative overtones. The present gouache shares an exclusive common feature with the rest of the series, known as the 'kite device'. As Green explains, this is the ‘elongated diamond shape, split in two down the middle, which seems to shove apart two converging cylinders at the top of the composition [...]. Not only is the 'kite device' formally analogous with the head [...] but it is compositionally analogous as well. It is at the apex of all pictorial movement. […] Yet neither the landscape origins of the Contrastes nor their strong figurative flavour should detract from the simple pictorial immediacy of their impact. Just as they are no longer landscapes, so they are not figure-paintings; only elaborate pictorial comparison can make them seem to be either, and then only in the pursuit of causes rather than effects. Léger does achieve in them the purest possible statement of his dynamic and dissonant view. They are in one sense flat, for line and colour are separated as flat elements; yet in another sense they are solidly three-dimensional because of the simple geometric solidity of their volumes. They have, in fact, what for Léger were the features of a complete style and no subject to compromise it: they are 'Pictorial contrasts... and that is all’ (ibid., pp. 66, 68 & 69).