Fernand Leger: Biography, Artwork & Quotes

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

Fernand Leger was a French artist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While his techniques and content changed over time, he would become best known for his work in the styles of Cubism and Futurism.

Fernand Leger

Born into a peasant family in the rural Normandy area of France in 1881, Fernand Leger was not raised to be the influential artist he eventually became. Rather, he was raised to be a cattle dealer like his father. However, his natural artistic talent did not go unnoticed by his family who encouraged his natural talent for drawing. He was apprenticed to an architect, and by 1900 moved to Paris to work as an architect's draughtsman. After about a year of military service with the Corps of Engineers in Versailles, Fernand Leger would enroll in the Paris School of Decorative Arts. He had applied to the École des Beaux-Arts but was rejected. However, his talent did not go unrecognized by some of the faculty there. Two faculty members took Leger under their wing as their unofficial mentee.

Fernand Leger

The Early Work

Fernand Leger's early artistic endeavors were more reminiscent of impressionism than the Cubanism style he would become known for later in his career. In fact, his earliest known works, dated around 1905, could best be described as gentle made up of broken color and light. His Portrait of the Artist 's Uncle and Corsican Village: Sunset were small. The latter, a landscape of Corsica done when he wintered there in 1905, reflects Cezanne's artistic style more than Leger's later Cubism style.

Over the next few years, Leger continued to paint and draw continuously, but it is said he destroyed most of that work because he was dissatisfied with it. His next work Nudes in the Forest is dated from 1909. This work begins his transition out of impressionism and into the Cubism he would build his reputation on. Leger himself said, ''I would like to talk of a new architectural order: the architecture of the mechanical.'' There are tree trunks that resemble pipes, and nudes with axes and metal armor. All of the forms appear to some degree mechanized with a rigidity of architecture. There are also forms that appear as just the shapes of cylinders, spheres, and cones alluding to his growing fascination with mechanisms.

Cubism Rising

Leger's 1912 painting The Woman in Blue would mark a turning point in his career. In his own words, it was the first time as an artist he tried ''to liberate pure color in space.'' Most of his early work consisted of subdued color tones, especially gray. In this work, he combined angled lines with curving smoke juxtaposed against pure color to create an illusion of forms moving around on the canvas. It is a mix of Cubism, the style of art defined by abstract planes, and Futurism, the art that celebrates technology and modernity.

La Femme en Bleu (Woman in Blue), Fernand Leger, 1912

By 1913, a boldness that audiences would associate with Leger's work would manifest itself on the canvas. The Stairway like many other stylized landscapes is a mix of massive shapes with dazzling colors. He often used the motif of a stairway in his work, but in this work, the stairs are flanked by two massive robot-like figures. Consisting mainly of blues, red, and greens, he created syncopated patterns by using broad patches of white highlights.

In 1914 Fernand Leger was mobilized into the military during World War I. He stopped painting though he continued to sketch some - though mostly common articles of war. He would later say, ''Perhaps my experiences at the front, and the daily contact with machines led to the change which marked my painting between 1914 and 1919.'' He recognized the brutality and camaraderie of war, but at the same time, the dazzle of a 75 mm gun in the sunlight noting the experience was enough ''to make me forget the abstract art of 1912 - 13. A complete revelation to me, both as a man and as a painter.'' During the war, he painted Soldier with Pipe and then The Card Players, which he completed while recovering from being gassed. Leger was fascinated by the modern battle, and it just reinforced his interest in working with hard forms trading vibrant colors for texture and gentle colors.

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