Léger's La Partie de Campagne is one of a series of monumental oils completed between 1952 and 1954, devoted to the subject of a country outing. At over one-and-a-half meters high, this work is related to an even larger version now in the collection of the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence (see fig. 1). Unlike that larger picture from 1954, which provides a more expansive view of the landscape, the present work from 1952-53 focuses solely on the central characters. These transparent figures, rendered in heavy black outline, are given their color by independent and broad bands of red, blue, green and yellow that sweep across the canvas. Léger once explained this liberal approach to color as it applies to this series: "You are talking to someone and all of a sudden he become blue," he said. "As soon as that colour fades another comes and he turns red or yellow. That kind of color, projected color, is free; it exists in space. I wanted to have the same thing in my canvases" (quoted Simon Willmoth, "Léger in America" in Fernand Léger: The Late Years (exhibition catalogue), London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1987-88, p. 51).
Léger's modeling of the figures themselves, including the reclining woman and the suited bourgeois gentleman, is an obvious quotation of Manet's 1863 masterwork, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (see fig. 3). But it is with considerable creative license that Léger has reinterpreted the notorious 19th century picnic scene for his La Partie de Campagne series (see fig. 3). Léger was a life-long admirer of Manet and considered him the most important innovators in the history of art. Similar to Picasso's focus on the old masters in the 1950s, Léger was mindful of the artists of the past and decided to pay tribute to one of his favorites during these last few months of his life. Both he and Manet shared radical political affiliations, and Léger felt a sense of comradery with the artist. At the time he painted this work, Léger was an active proponent of Socialist ideas and a defender of the communist party. Many of his pictures from this time were allusions to labor rights and other political issues sympathetic to that cause. Along with the series of La Partie de Campagne, Léger also completed another series entitled Les Campeurs (see fig. 4), which further explores Manet's original theme and broader ideas of contemporary politics.
La Partie de Campagne incorporates the solidly linear figures that had populated Léger's best work since the 1920s. Shape and form were primary concerns for the artist, but by the last years of his career he began to incorporate narrative into his highly-geometric compositions. In this picture, the juxtaposition of the curvilinear family against the architecturally detailed natural setting reveals the medley of shapes and forms that have become part of the contemporary landscape. Léger was fascinated with social progress, and the campers, construction workers, and circus performers that he painted in the 1950s celebrate the activities of modern life.
Concerning the constrasts inherent in these pictures from the 1950s, Léger said, "If I was able to approach very close to a realistic figuration, it was because the violent constrast between my workmen and the metal geometry in which they are set is at its maximum. Modern sculptures, whether social or other, are valid insofar as this law of contrasts is respected; otherwise one falls back on the classical picture of the Italian Renaissance" (quoted in Werner Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, p. 162).
This work has kindly been requested for the upcoming exhibition Fernand Léger, Paris - New York to be held at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen from June 1 until September 7, 2008.
Oil on canvas
Paris, Maison de la Pensée Française, Fernand Léger, Oeuvres Récentes, 1953-1954, 1954, no. 40
63 3/4 by 44 7/8 in 162 by 114 cm.
Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris (acquired from the artist and until at least 1962)
Perls Galleries, New York (from as early as 1968 until at least 1988)
Private Collection (acquired from the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1990