Lot 332
  • 332

FERNAND LÉGER | Étude pour "Les Constructeurs"

300,000 - 400,000 USD
375,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Fernand Léger
  • Étude pour "Les Constructeurs"
  • Signed with the initials F.L. and dated 52. (lower right)
  • Gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper
  • 18 1/4  by 22 7/8  in.
  • 46.3 by 58.1 cm
  • Executed in 1952.


Estate of the artist, Paris
Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris
Stephen Hahn Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above on June 5, 1969


Jean Cassou & Jean Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 180, no. 269
Jean Cassou & Jean Leymarie, Fernand Léger, Dessins et gouaches, nouvelle édition, 2012, no. 15-101, http://www.legerdessinsetgouaches.com/tableaux/etude-pour-les-constructeurs-1/ (accessed on February 27, 2019)
Karen Thomson, ed., The Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection, Montreal, 2015, no. 78, illustrated in color p. 76

Catalogue Note

Léger’s series of gouaches and oils on the theme of construction workers is one of his best-known projects of the 1940s and early 1950s. The present study is taken from the upper section of the large-scale Les Constructeurs (1951) in the collection of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. As Brian Petrie comments, the gouache reductions and variations of the Constructeurs seem to lie outside our terms of reference for Léger, “somewhere between the requirements of easel-painting, ornamental and ‘architectural’ painting, as Léger conceived them. Perhaps they are the closest that Léger came to that ‘Peinture d’accompagnement’ which he imagined on the analogy of Satie’s musical ideas” (Brian Petrie, “Léger at the Waddington Galleries,” in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 112, 1970, p. 409). The cult of the skyscraper and by extension the architect (Léger’s original profession until he transitioned to painting seriously in his mid-20s), is one that captivated writers and artists on every side of the political and social divide, from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (1943) to Andy Warhol’s film Empire (1964), and Lunch atop a Skyscraper (1932) remains an iconic photograph of Manhattan even today (see fig. 1). Léger had spent time in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, including visits to New York City, but it was seeing men swaying on steel girders high above him on a French construction site that famously inspired this series. "I saw man like a flea; he seemed still lost in his inventions with the sky above him. I wanted to render that; the contrast between man and his inventions, between the worker and all that metal architecture, that hardness, that ironwork, those bolts and rivets” (Fernand Léger quoted in Werner Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, p. 158). 

This contrast of materials is evident in the present work, but the scale and dizzying perspective which had initially inspired him is notably absent: man is emphatically not flea-sized. Instead we find those “massive figures, with calm expressions, which are, in fact, veritable painted sculptures” that Kahnweiler identified in his paintings of the 1920s onward and it is in fact the humanity of the Constructeurs which is most often commented on (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 92, 1950, p. 68). To an extent this can be ascribed to intensification of his socialist views in the wake of the war, but his positive sense of the dignity of the individual in the mechanized age was not new. By 1913 Léger had already identified specialization as a characteristic of modern life. Rather than lament the onset of automation however, he believed that confining each man to the pursuit of a single aim only intensified the character of his achievement. With his trademark disassociated color planes and flattened perspective, Léger shifts the focus in Les Constructeurs away from the inhumanity of monolithic structures to the inventiveness of man and the central role of the worker.