Lot 20
  • 20

Fernand Léger

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • Fernand Léger
  • Composition à la pipe
  • Signed F. LÉGER and dated 28 (lower right)
  • Oil on canvas
  • 25 5/8 by 18 1/4 in.
  • 65 by 46.5 cm


Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, Paris

Alex Maguy, Paris

James Goodman Gallery, Paris

Sale: Adler, Palais Galliera, Paris, 1960, lot 266

Private Collection, London

Sale: Christie's, New York, November 3, 1981, lot 47

Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired at the above sale)

Acquired in the late 1980s


Paris, Galerie Cazeau-Béraudière, NY, International Fine Art, 1997


Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger, Catalogue Raisonné, 1925-1928, Paris, 1993, no. 576, illustrated in color p. 305

Catalogue Note

After completing his service with the Premier Régiment du Génie de Versailles engineering corps during the First World War, Léger became close with Amedée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret – better known as Le Corbusier – who introduced him to the style known as Purism. Striving to “purify” the arts through stripped-down forms and bold colors, Purism would influence Léger’s work throughout much of the 1920’s. However, hesitant to align himself so closely with a particular dogma, Léger remained ambivalent about the impact this movement would have on his work, stating that, “Purism did not appeal to me. Too thin to me, that closed-in world. But it had to be done all the same; someone had to go to the extreme” (quoted in J. Cassou & J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger, Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 87). By the time he painted Composition à la pipe in 1928, Léger had begun to infuse his works with sinuous lines, organic shapes and a busier, more spontaneous composition. A decade of experimentation with the rigid geometries of Purism had given way to a more fluid, organic aesthetic. This signaled a decline in the “return to order” following World War I, in which artists favored a traditional style in reaction to the avant-garde excesses of the pre-war years.

Featuring a mélange of objects including a pipe, ball and boldly outlined silhouette, Composition à la pipe perfectly illustrates Léger’s aesthetic transition towards the close of the decade. Still lifes dominated Léger’s oeuvre in 1928, and recast the traditional genre as a glorification of the “object” over the classical subject. Liberated from the constraints of traditional perspective, the isolated objects of Composition à la pipe playfully float atop fragmented geometric planes. In drawing attention to the individualized objects within the composition Léger felt he could subvert the reign of the generically classicized subject. As the artist himself wrote, “The subject in painting had already been destroyed, just as the avant-garde film had destroyed the story-line. I thought that the object, which had been neglected and poorly exploited, was the thing to replace the subject” (ibid, p. 87).

This innovation had in part been sparked by Léger’s experimentation with new media. Film in particular resonated with the artist, which can be seen in the shadowy  cinematic profile that dominates the left side of Composition à la pipe. Such imagery is featured in a number of key works from 1928 including Le Profil noir, each of which features the pictorial interplay of black and white. Surrealist artist Guillaume Apollinaire took Léger to his first Chaplin film at the Ciné Montparnasse in 1916, and the artist remained transfixed by what he saw. Newly inspired by the temporal capacity of the cinema, Léger released his first short film Ballet Mécanique alongside Dudley Murphy and Man Ray in 1924. Lacking a discernible narrative, the experimental film merged a series of closely-cropped vignettes of isolated, undulating machinery. Fetishizing both the machine and the unseen labor behind it, Ballet Mécanique would be screened in Paris, London and New York. Léger’s immersion in the world of avant-garde cinema is clearly reflected in his painting, which Jean Cassou and Jean Leymarie described as follows, “Léger’s objects have escaped from the domination of the subject, as they have from the pull of gravity; they invert or reject perspective, loop up or recede in the air, with the power and mystery of pictures in slow motion” (ibid, p. 99).