Lot 17
  • 17

Fernand Léger

6,000,000 - 9,000,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Fernand Léger
  • Le Pont du remorqueur
  • signed F. Léger, titled Le Pont du Remorquer, état définitif and dated 19 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 65 by 92cm.
  • 25 5/8 by 36 1/4 in.


Galerie l'Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Paris (acquired from the artist on 31st December 1920. Sold: A. Mak, Amsterdam, 19th October 1921, lot 53)

Anton & Helene Kröller-Müller, Otterlo (purchased at the above sale)

Mrs Gertrud Julie van Winsen (née Arper), The Hague (a gift from the above in 1923) 

Private Collection, The Netherlands (by descent from the above)

Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired from the above in 1983)

Thence by descent to the present owner


Maurice Raynal, Fernand Léger. Vingt tableaux, Paris, 1920, illustrated pl. 19

Maurice Raynal, 'F. Léger', in L'Esprit nouveau, no. 4, January 1921, illustrated p. 447 (titled Le Remorqueur)

Tériade, Cercle d'Art, 1928, illustrated p. 28

Christian Zervos, 'Fernand Léger est-il cubiste?', in Les Cahiers d'Art, Paris, 1933, illustrated (titled Départ du navire)

Jean Cassou & Jean Leymarie, Fernand Léger: dessins et gouaches, Paris, 1972, no. T10, illustrated p. 56 (titled Le Pont du navire)

Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger. Catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre peint, 1903-1919, Paris, 1990, no. 178, illustrated in colour p. 316 (titled Le Pont du navire and with incorrect measurements)

Christian Derouet (ed.), Correspondances: Fernand Léger, Léonce Rosenberg, 1917-1937, Paris, 1996, listed p. 266

Catalogue Note

Le Pont du remorqueur is a remarkable example of Léger's exuberant abstract style. Inscribed by the artist as the état définitif, it is the culmination of a series of works created during the period which featured bridges and boats. Created shortly after the end of the First World War, it is a gleaming symbol of technological progress in an age of rapid industrialisation. At the time Léger painted this work, the prevailing philosophy in war-torn Europe was focused on the rebuilding of nations. The present work depicts a cast iron bridge and a passing tugboat – a theme which fascinated the artist from his earliest experiments in 1919 and 1920 to his grand purist compositions of 1923 (figs. 1 & 2). Werner Schmalenbach noted that ‘the world of watermen who navigate the French canals and rivers has a popular poetry all of its own that embraces nature, technology, and human beings’ (W. Schmalenbach, Léger, London, 1991, p. 88). Common to all these works is Léger’s cubist exploration of both internal and external elements, both mechanical and organic.

The composition is painted with a vibrant palette of primary colours that Léger carried over from the Contraste de formes series that had occupied him up until the war. The aesthetic of Le Pont du remorqueur, though, is much more representational than his pre-war pictures. After witnessing the atrocities of battle and the brutal destruction of the familiar world, Léger felt that abstraction was no longer an appropriate style for his art. He was discharged from military service in early 1918 having gone ‘three years without touching a paintbrush’ (quoted in Christopher Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New York, 1976, p. 96), and now he was finally able to resume painting full-time. The artist's experience of front-line service during the war, in which he had witnessed mechanised killing on an atrocious scale, led him to innovations in both style and subject matter. He wrote to Léonce Rosenberg, his dealer: ‘As soon as I was freed, I started to profit from those difficult years; I've reached a decision, and I'm modelling in pure, local colour and on a large scale without making any concessions. The war made me what I am, I'm not afraid to say so’ (quoted in Fernand Léger 1911-1924: The Rhythm of Modern Life (exhibition catalogue), Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg & Kunstmuseum, Basel, 1994, p. 68). 

The present work is by no means a realistic representation of its subject matter, however, it is filled with elements that all appear to convey a sense of the movement and mechanisation of the bridge and boat. Years later Léger would explain this change in his artistic priorities:  ‘It was those four years [of World War I] which threw me suddenly into a blinding reality that was entirely new to me… Suddenly I found myself on an equal footing with the whole French people. Posted to the sappers, my new comrades were miners, labourers, artisans who worked in wood or metal. I discovered the people of France. And at the same time I was suddenly stunned by the sight of the open breach of a .75 cannon in full sunlight, confronted with the play of light on white metal. It needed nothing more than this for me to forget the abstract art of 1912-13’ (Léger in Arts, Paris, 1949).

Le Pont du remorqueur is among a series of works from this crucial post-war period that includes Les Disques (fig. 4) and La Ville. These compositions inherit the stylistic legacy of Synthetic Cubism (fig. 3) and also incorporate the dynamism and energy that was concurrently being expressed in Italian Futurist art. In these vibrant compositions Léger showed his ability to work on a monumental scale, maintaining a fine balance between the abstract strength of the Contraste de formes series and references to contemporary urban life. Peter de Francia suggests that the Remorqueur series ‘contains some specific references to the stage, in terms of both structure and visual cohesion’ (P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, London & New Haven, 1983, p. 174). When he was painting these pictures Léger was bearing witness to the production of a new society which was performing on a grand, industrial scale.

In the present work, the composition consists of many abstract forms, vertical, horizontal and diagonal bands of colour, spheres and less clearly definable shapes that coexist with glimpses of modern urban architecture. The resulting aesthetic is a bold statement that has come to encapsulate the style of post-war Paris.  The work of this period has been memorably described by John Golding: ‘Now, at the height of his powers, he rendered architectural the compositional effects of synthetic Cubism to give definitive form to all that had been most positive, from a visual point of view, in the Futurist programme ... From synthetic Cubism Léger adapted a form of composition that relied for its effects on a surface organization in terms of predominantly upright, vertical areas, often tendered now in unmodulated colour. Mechanical, tubular forms, like great shafts of metal, appear with frequency, but these are now tied into, and indeed made subsidiary to a flatter treatment of the picture surface; the coloured shapes tip and tilt, fanning out towards the edges of the canvas, only to meet opposing forces which tie them back again tightly into the overall, jazz-like rhythms of the composition. The bright raw colours call to each other across the surface of the canvas, pulling it taut like a drum. The vitality of the forms is such that at times they appear to advance towards us, so that we seem to share, palpably, in the painting’s beat. Some areas become cells in space, in which we glimpse the life of the city’s inhabitants; others are broken by letters, like fragments of giant billboards, while their harsh, dry imagery is thrown into relief by the contrasting, swirling, circular bands of colour. Never has the poetry of the first machine age been so grandly and proudly exalted’ (J. Golding, ‘Léger and the Heroism of Modern Life’, in Léger and Purist Paris (exhibition catalogue), The Tate Gallery, London, 1970-71, p. 12).

The present work was first owned by Léonce Rosenberg, Léger's primary dealer until the 1940s, before being acquired by the remarkable Helene and Anton Kröller-Müller. The Kröller-Müller's amassed one of the finest collections of late 19th and early 20th century art in the Netherlands. Among the many masterpieces was one of the largest private collections of works by Vincent van Gogh as well as paintings by Piet Mondrian and Pablo Picasso. The collection was first made available to the public in 1913 and was donated to the Dutch people in 1935. In 1923 the present painting was given by Helene and Anton to Gerturd Arper, a freelance designer who had trained under Henry van der Velde in Weimar; Arper was a friend of the couple and helped to decorate their extraordinary house, the Jachtslot St.-Hubertus. The Kröller-Müllers also gave her a Mondrian painting on the occasion of her marriage to J. van Winsen which was sold by her heirs in these rooms in 1968. The Léger remained in her collection until her death and was acquired by family of present owners in 1983.