Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Property from a Private European Collection
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

La femme et l’enfant

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
La femme et l’enfant
signed and dated ‘F. LEGER 21’ (lower right); signed and dated again, titled and inscribed ‘F. LEGER 21 La femme et l’enfant definitif’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
36 1/8 x 25 5/8 in. (91.8 x 65 cm.)
Painted in March 1921
Galerie de l'Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Paris (acquired from the artist, 4 April 1921).
Paul Rosenberg, Paris and Tours (acquired from the above, circa June 1925).
Confiscated from the above following the Nazi occupation of France in May 1940.
Restituted to Paul Rosenberg after 1945.
The New Gallery, Inc. (Eugene V. Thaw), New York (circa 1959).
Paul Kantor, Beverly Hills.
Mr. and Mrs. Eugene V. Klein, Beverly Hills (by 1964).
Lionel Prejger, Paris.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owners, 1971.
Album Léonce Rosenberg, 1921-1923, vol. I, f. 52.
Bulletin de l'Effort Moderne, May 1927, no. 35 (illustrated; titled La femme à l'enfant).
C. Zervos, "Fernand Léger est-il cubiste?" in Cahier d'art, 1933, no. 3-4 (illustrated; dated 1923).
J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 204, no. T 28 (illustrated, p. 78).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue raisonné 1920-1924, Paris, 1992, vol. II, p. 158, no. 292 (illustrated in color, p. 159).
C. Derouet, Correspondances Fernand LégerLéonce Rosenberg 1917-1937, Paris, 1996, p. 82, letter 92 and p. 269, no. 7348 (titled La femme à l'enfant).
Kunsthaus Zürich, Fernand Léger, April-May 1933, p. 11, no. 98 (with inverted dimensions).
Paris, Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Exposition d’œuvres de Léger, February 1937, no. 10 (titled Mère et enfant).
London, Rosenberg & Helft, Ltd., Exhibition of Works by Léger, January-February 1938, no. 4 (with inverted dimensions).
Paris, Galerie Maeght, Derrière le miroir, October-December 1955, no. 2 (illustrated; illustrated again in color, p. 14).
New York, Paul Rosenberg & Co., Braque, Gris, Léger, Picasso, September-October 1959, no. 10.
Pasadena Art Museum, A View of the Century, November-December 1964, no. 10 (illustrated; titled Mother and Child).


La femme et l’enfant is a key work in the series of female figure paintings that Fernand Léger created in early 1921, a strategic campaign that culminated by the end of that year in the pair of masterworks Le petit déjeuner (Bauquier, no. 310; formerly in the Collection of Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine; sold, Christie’s New York, 5 November 1991, lot 10) and Le grand déjeuner (Bauquier, no. 311; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). The artist regarded the latter, the ultimate version of this landmark composition comprising three nudes at leisure, as his most important work of the 1920s. The single- and multiple-figure canvases of 1921 mark a critical turning point in the evolution of Léger’s work during the years following the end of the First World War. The figure henceforth became a primary, central theme in Léger's oeuvre. The present La femme et l’enfant is the larger of two paintings depicting a mother and her young child, and bears the artist’s designation “Définitif” on the reverse (the other, location unknown, is Bauquier, no. 291).
Having served with distinction on the front lines in some of the worst fighting during the First World War, Léger witnessed mechanized killing on a horrendous scale. This experience did not dissuade him, however, from his pre-war fascination with new forms of representation derived from industrial invention and the machine age. "Modern man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order,” Léger declared in a 1924 article. “All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 52).
During 1918-1920, Léger made the machine and the kinetic life of the modern city his chief theme. The figures that appeared in these paintings were fragmented, disassembled, and subsumed—as if mere cogs—within the larger mechanical forces that impelled the industrialized, metropolitan environment. The artist often eliminated the human presence altogether, extolling an aesthetic derived solely from machine-like elements. Léger’s art stood at the cutting edge of the modernist imagination, at a frontier as far removed from conventional pictorialism as the new geometric abstractions of Kandinsky, Mondrian, and their followers.
By 1920, in a reaction to the trauma of the war years, a palliative conservatism had settled on the arts, le rappel à l’ordre—“the call to order.” This revival of the classical, humanist values that had historically informed the Gallic tradition lent a new, retrospective demeanor to the erstwhile, stridently transgressive character of the Paris avant-garde. A return to coherent figuration was fundamental to this endeavor. The Louvre and other museums were taking their master paintings, medieval art, and antiquities out of protective wartime storage and placing them back on view. Renewed exposure to these riches fostered in Léger a more compelling awareness of artistic tradition. The image of the human form had long been the signal theme by which all past European artists of stature staked their claims to posterity, and so this aim must become, Léger reasoned, the task at hand for himself and others of his generation, as they aspired to ultimate, authoritative mastery in their contributions to the evolution of modern Western art.
In conceiving his canvases during late 1920 and early 1921, Léger lifted and brought forward the figure—modeled in smoothed-down, volumetric shapes—from its architectural environment to become an integral entity within it. “I needed a rest, to breathe a little,” the artist later recalled. “After the dynamism of the mechanical phase, I felt a need for the static quality of the large forms that were to follow. Earlier I had broken up the human body. Now I began to put it together again. Since then I have always used the human form” (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, op. cit., London, 1973, p. 47).
Léger sought to generate “a state of organized intensity,” he wrote in “Notes on the Mechanical Element,” 1923. “I apply the law of plastic contrasts, which I think has never been applied until today. I group contrary values together, flat surfaces opposed to modeled surfaces; volumetric figures opposed to the flat facades of houses; pure flat tones opposed to gray, modulated tones, or the reverse. Between these two kinds of relationships, which are eternal subjects for painting, I look for a relationship of intensity never before achieved… We live in a geometric world—it is undeniable—and a state of frequent contrasts” (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, pp. 29 and 30).
Conventional genre subjects, such as the mother and child, remained viable in a modernist context, Léger maintained, provided that such content was drawn from contemporary life, "not as a sentimental element, but solely as a plastic element" (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, op. cit., 1973, p. 46). In this way he could utilize, transform, and revitalize virtually any pictorial convention he chose to feature, and imbue it with currency and relevance. He achieved, from diverse traditions, a truly modernist pictorial synthesis; as Christopher Green has observed, “he attached his new mechanized classical ideal of the human figure more directly to the facts of everyday existence” (Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 235).
The modern cosmopolitan setting in Léger’s art had previously been a predominantly masculine domain, a bustling amalgam of architecture, engineering, and commercial activity. Concurrent with the Déjeuner-related canvases, he continued to pursue his interest in active male figures in the rural Paysage animé series (Bauquier, nos. 267-285). Léger generally conceived his ongoing production by means of contrasting themes and subjects; in shifting his interest in early 1921 to female figure paintings, he entered the distaff, intimiste realm of the domestic interior and developed it as a signature emphasis in his work.
In the present La femme et l’enfant, Léger highlighted the fundamental human relationship of a woman caring for her offspring. This theme held special resonance for viewers at that time. An ascending, stylized, ovular-shaped plant in the background symbolizes reproductive fertility. The woman is attired in tricolor blue, white, and red—she is emblematic of La France. The child, especially if male, had become a key to future national prosperity. The French suffered 1.4 million military casualties during the war; at the signing of the armistice, 40 percent fewer men were available for unmarried women than before the war. The birth rate had dropped to one-third of what it was in 1870. By 1920, however, veterans had begun to marry; women readily turned to men younger than themselves, and would even cross conventional class lines. The birth rate in France soon surpassed pre-war levels.
The dynamic, changing panorama of life in contemporary France, from social demographics to economic progress, indeed attested to “an epoch of contrasts,” as Léger proclaimed. “So I am consistent with my own time" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 30).

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