Léger's Deux femmes au bouquet from 1921 is the first of a series of related compositions of the same title that explore the streamlined, Modernist aesthetic that defined the avant-garde movement known as Purism during the early 1920s. Many of his paintings from this era are characterised by a pairing of primary-coloured geometric forms and human figures (fig. 1). Using combinations of simple shapes to render each detail of the composition, Léger is able to create depth and dimension without compromising the elegant beauty of pure form. In the present work and in a related composition (fig. 2), for example, the smooth waves and soft curves of the women are contrasted by the straight edges and rectangles that compose the background. Léger's style, with its clear, precise and linear forms, constituted what came to be known as Purism, and inspired a generation of artists and architects including Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier.
By the time he completed this work, Léger was celebrated among the Parisian avant-garde as one of the original Cubists, along with Picasso and Braque. However, after serving in the engineering corps during the worst battles of World War I, Léger's paintings progressed from complete abstraction to figuration, depicting the human form during a booming industrial era. In the first phase of this transition immediately after the war, Léger's paintings focused almost entirely on industrial objects. It was during this period that he painted Mechanical Elements, now in the collection of the Kunstmuseum in Basel. His most significant advancement, however, came with his series Le Grand déjeuner, in which he brings the figure back into the composition while still adhering to his newly developed style and thematic concerns. The present picture is similar in its style to that important series, but it is more closely related to the Grand déjeuner variant, Femmes au bouquet, now at the Musée National Fernand Léger in Biot (fig. 3). Both of these pictures encompass the formal principles of high Modernism and introduce the themes that would dominate the artist's paintings in the years to come.
Léger explained the development of these paintings in the following terms: '...after the mechanical period came the monumental period, the massive phase, the compositions with large figures, the enlargement of details. I heightened the impression of flatness while arranging my figures and objects in the same formal manner as during the machine period, minus the dynamism. I had broken down the human body, so I set about putting it together again and rediscovering the human face... I wanted a rest, a breathing space. After the dynamism of the mechanical period, I felt a need for the staticity of large figures' (quoted in Werner Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, p. 110).
In this picture, Léger has encapsulated the concerns of the French avant-garde and their attempt to 'call to order' their art after the Great War. Like Picasso, who also reintroduced figures into his painting at this time, Léger focuses on the strong contours of the female body and the beauty of linear precision. Using sharp outlining and solid formations to compose the bodies of this figures, he emphasises the legibility and clarity of each woman in a manner that calls to mind the neo-classical beauties of the great French painters of the early 19th century such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Indeed, Léger, as well as Picasso, was concerned with aligning himself with the artists of his great Latinate past. But according to Charlotte Praestegaard Schwartz, 'Unlike Picasso, Léger never added drapery or other classical attributes to his figures. There are not goddesses or caryatids in Léger's imagery. His figures belong to the contemporary world. In Women with a Bouquet (1921), the figures are depicted in a domestic setting. The women are seated, holding flowers, a plate and a book. The geometry of the background likewise fixes them in the modern world. Léger's fascination with modern life kept his approach to the grand French classical tradition free of any historicist undertones. Léger's work never appropriated the classical idiom in a conventional manner. Constrast and dissonance are constant presences' (C. Praestegaard Schwartz, 'In Dialogue with Modern Life', in Fernand Léger, Man in the New Age (exhibition catalogue), Arken Museum of Modern Art, 2005, pp. 21-22).
Fig. 1, Fernand Léger, Deux femmes, 1922, oil on canvas, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
Fig. 2, Fernand Léger, Deux femmes au bouquet, 1921, oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
Fig. 3, Fernand Léger, Les Femmes au bouquet, 1921, oil on canvas, Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot
Oil on canvas
St. Louis, The Carroll-Knight Gallery, Paintings by American, French and English Artists, 1947, no. 18
Palm Beach, Worth Avenue Gallery, Daumier to Dufy, 1948
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Léger, 1951
London, Helly Nahmad Gallery, Braque, Gris, Léger, Picasso, 2001, no. 25
65.2 by 50cm. 25 5/8 by 19 3/4 in.
Gilles Néret, Fernand Léger, Paris, 1990, no. 126, p. 114
Galerie Bucher, Paris (acquired from the artist)
Private Collection, New York (sold: Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 1st May 1946, lot 38)
M. Knoedler & Co., New York (purchased at the above sale)
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in February 1951)
Harriet Weiner Goodstein, New York (sale: Sotheby's, New York, 11th May 1994, lot 24)
Helly Nahmad Gallery, London
Landau Fine Art, Montreal
Acquired from the above by the present owner