FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
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Property from a Private Collection
FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)

Une vache et un chapeau rouge

FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
Une vache et un chapeau rouge
signed and dated 'F. LEGER 52' (lower right); signed and dated again and titled 'une VACHE et un chapeau rouge F. LEGER 52' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
29 x 36 ¼ in. (73.7 x 92 cm.)
Painted in 1952
Galerie Louis Carré, Paris (by 1955).
Private collection.
E.J. van Wisselingh & Co., Amsterdam.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, 1968.
P. Descargues, Fernand Léger, Paris, 1955, p. 167 (illustrated; titled La chaise et la vache).
I. Hansma and C. Lefebvre du Preÿ, Fernand Léger, 1952-1953, Paris, 2013, vol. IX, p. 36, no. 1472 (illustrated).
Leverkusen, Städtisches Museum, Fernand Léger, February 1955, no. 8 (illustrated).


Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale


Fernand Léger painted this large, boldly colored landscape in 1952, a year of personal and professional contentment in the artist’s life. In February, he married his former student and assistant, the artist Nadia Khodasevich, and moved to a new home, Gros Tilleul, in Gif-sur-Yvette, Chevreuse, a rural village south west of Paris. This same year, exhibitions of his work were held at the Kunsthalle Bern and the Venice Biennale, while preparations were underway for a retrospective to be held at The Art Institute of Chicago.
Steeped in personal symbolism, Une vache et un chapeau rouge is one of a small series of works that pictures the rural French landscape, inspired perhaps by Léger’s new home or a nostalgic reminiscence of his Normandy farm, as well as the artist’s chair, hat and painter’s coat (Bauquier, nos. 1470-1475). Combining these seemingly disparate motifs, the present work combines all of the various subjects Léger was exploring in this group into a single work. Painted in red, white, and blue, the colors of the French tricolore, Léger’s chair is reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s own La chaise de Van Gogh (The National Gallery, London). As such, this work can be regarded as an homage to nature and above all, to the artist’s native France, as well as a bold demonstration of his own identity as an artist.
Born in Argentan, a small town in Normandy, Léger maintained a strong connection to this area of France throughout his life. He frequently returned to his family farmhouse in Lisores, often retreating there in the summer months to escape the sweltering heat in Paris. The artist’s assistant, Georges Bauquier, described Léger’s contented rural summer routine. After rising early and going to the local market, Léger was “happy to tread the soil of his ancestors, along small paths lined with [pollarded trees], the rich pastures where peaceful cows graze, taking pleasure in chatting with some peasant or peasant woman met on his way” (Fernand Léger: Vivre dans le vrai, Paris, 1987, p. 182).
Despite his lifelong embrace of mechanical style and subject matter, the influence of the Normandy countryside often found its way into Léger’s art. In 1921, he painted a series of paysages animés, many of which contain objects that Léger found during his long walks in the area. In the present work, the rolling hills and cloud-filled landscape of rural France is dominated by a monumental, leafless tree. Trees had a particular resonance for Léger; as he once explained, “I’m not put out by tree trunks. On the contrary, trees attract me a great deal, but only when they are leafless. Trees, I feel, have an animal force about them. In any case there is an affinity… But again they are only good when leafless. In fact they are my great love and I can’t rest when I am surrounded by them. I have tremendous trepidation to paint them, and yet I know that I could never do so as I see them…” (quoted in P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 224). The affinity between the stately tree and the monumental presence of the cow is clearly seen in Une vache et un chapeau rouge, emphasized with the shared forms Léger has used to depict the horns and central branches of these two motifs.
After his return from America in 1945, where he had spent the years of the Second World War, the countryside once more occupied a central role in Léger’s art. Léger declared his “joy…in rediscovering my country… I have faith in France” (quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 248). The transformation of the French landscape, battered by years of war and the Occupation resonated with the artist, and the reconstruction of the country both physically and psychologically informed his post-war art, illustrated in his large scale works such as Les Constructeurs (Bauquier, no. 1402; Musée national Fernand Léger, Biot).
In his work of this time, Léger ennobled nature. He depicted it both as a place for leisure and respite from labor, as well as emphasizing the timelessness and constancy of the landscape in a world of rapid technological change. In 1950, he stated, “An oak tree that can be destroyed in twenty seconds takes a century to grow…progress is a word stripped of its meaning, and a cow that nourishes the world will always go two miles an hour” (quoted in ibid., p. 247). With works such as La partie de campagne (Bauquier, no. 1555; Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), Léger glorified rural recreation. The present work demonstrates a more personal response by the artist, filled with elements that reflect the artist’s personal iconography.
Une vache et un chapeau rouge also encapsulates the formal characteristics that define Leger’s post-war work. In 1950, the artist declared that abstraction had reached its conclusion, calling for new subjects to be found. This, he believed, did not mean that representational art was to replace abstraction entirely, as he explained, “Easel painting’s intensive discoveries must not be abandoned—quite the opposite. New subjects, envisaged with the contribution of the freedoms that previous experimentation has offered, must emerge and establish themselves” (quoted in ibid., p. 247).
As the present work, with its bold palette and clear compositional structure, attests, Léger painted these new subjects with the same three formal components that had served to underpin his creative enterprise since the beginning of his career: line, form, and color. “The plastic life, the picture, is made up of harmonious relationships among volumes, lines, and colors. These are the three forces that must govern works of art. If, in organizing these three essential elements harmoniously, one finds that objects, elements of reality, can enter into the composition, it may be better and may give the work more richness. But they must be subordinated to the three essential elements mentioned above” (quoted in ibid., p. 247).

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