Lot 20
  • 20

FERNAND LÉGER | Les papillons

1,200,000 - 1,500,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Fernand Léger
  • Les papillons
  • signed F. Léger and dated 37 (lower right); signed F. Leger, titled and dated 37 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 130 by 89cm.
  • 51 1/8 by 35in.
  • Painted in 1937.


Galerie Louis Carré et Cie., Paris (until at least 1965) Galerie Pétridès, Paris

Galerie Linssen, Cologne

Edward Totah Gallery, London

Pat Kery Fine Art, New York

Sale: Sotheby's, London, 28th June 1988, lot 56

Private Collection, USA (sold: Christie's, New York, 7th May 2003, lot 29)

Acquired by the present owner in 2007


Bern, Kunsthalle, Calder, Léger, Bodmer, Leuppi, 1947, no. 62 Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, 1947, no. 68, illustrated in the catalogue

Paris, Galerie Louis Carré et Cie., F. Léger, peintures, 1953, no. 15

Zurich, Kunsthaus, Fernand Léger, 1957, no. 92

Paris, Galerie Louis Carré et Cie., La Peinture sous le signe de Blaise Cendrars, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, 1965, no. 13


Georges Duthuit, 'Union et distance', in Cahiers d'Art, Paris, 1939, no. 1-4, illustrated p. 63 Robert L. Delevoy, Léger, étude biographique et critique, Geneva, 1962, illustrated in colour p. 104

Fernand Léger, Fonctions de la peinture, Paris, 1965, illustrated p. 96

Eva Petrová, Fernand Léger, Prague, 1966, illustrated p. 98

Lawrence Saphire, Fernand Léger: The Complete Graphic Work, New York, 1978, illustrated p. 256

Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger, catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre peint, 1932-1937, Paris, 1996, no. 968, illustrated in colour p. 283

Catalogue Note

In the late 1930s Léger painted a number of compositions using images of the natural world, such as butterflies, flowers and underwater plants. In Les papillons, images of a butterfly in the foreground and clouds in the top of the composition are combined with the more abstract forms, all painted in strong, unmodulated colour and silhouetted against the flat background. Although rendered in blocks of pure pigment, the background, divided into three segments, suggests a landscape setting. The vivid, undulating forms are rendered in primary tones, combined with black and white, colours that, according to Léger, express the reality of the medium of painting. Rather than imitating nature, the artist was interested in exploring the language of painting in its fullest and purest form, thus reducing his vocabulary to the elements of colour and form. As a result, Léger's composition defies a sense of gravity and transcends the earth-bound nature of a traditional landscape. ‘The artist must make something as beautiful as nature,’ Léger wrote in 1937, the year he painted Les papillons. Executed in bright primary tones, with the subject reduced to its pictorial essence, the present work boldly exemplifies Léger’s commitment to ‘painting first, then the subject’. The phrase aptly summarises the aesthetic doctrine that the artist promoted in many of his writings of the 1930s. As Léger saw it, the task of the artist was to single out the essence of beauty from a context that may otherwise overshadow it. ‘If I isolate a tree in a landscape, if I approach that tree, I see that its bark has an interesting design and a plastic form; that its branches have dynamic violence which ought to be observed; that its leaves are decorative. Locked up in “subject matter,” these elements are not “set in value”’ (quoted in Carolyn Lanchner, Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 224). 

Sold with the agreement of the Judicial Administrator of Banco Santos S.A.