Trois personnages devant le jardin is a key work in the series of masterpieces that Léger painted in the early 1920s, in which he established the figure as a subject that would henceforth assume primary importance in his work. Léger painted this classical and stately domestic interior at a time when there was a renewed interest in the representation of the figure generally, for it was the signal theme by which all past European artists of stature had staked their claim in posterity, and so it would be, Léger and his colleagues realized, for their generation as well. Trois personnages also marks the continuation of the artist's commitment to featuring subjects drawn from contemporary life. Léger carried forward in this composition the mechanical aspect and geometrical elements that had dominated preceding pictures, and he introduced further refinements related to his notions about the contrasts of form. This important painting embodies the totality of Léger's achievement during this halcyon, watershed phase of his career.
At the beginning of an article published in a 1924 edition of the Bulletin de l'éffort moderne, Léger declared: "Modern man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order. All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces" (in E. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 52). This is perhaps his most famous statement, which he made to justify the mechanical paintings that he created in the years immediately following the end of the First World War. Although Léger experienced first-hand the horror of mechanized warfare in the frontline trenches, he did not hesitate to embrace the machine as being the inevitable, most positive and constructive force in human society. In a series of dynamic, even dissonant, multi-layered compositions that he painted in 1918-1919, such as Le moteur (Bauquier, no. 138; fig. 1), Léger celebrated the very mechanical elements in modern society that many people had come to fear. In some of these compositions Léger subsumed, or even disassembled the figure in this brave new world of a mechanical and industrial universe, where geometry seemed to twist and spin out of control. In others, Léger eliminated the human presence altogether, which seemed to many an even more ominous prospect.
By 1920, however, Léger had begun to reconstitute the human figure in a more recognizable form. He later recalled, "I needed a rest, to breathe a little. After the dynamism of the mechanical phase, I felt, as it were, 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. Later it developed, slowly, towards a more realistic, less schematic representation" (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47).
Léger was then moving in closer step with his colleagues in heeding the rappel à l'ordre, the "call to order" that Jean Cocteau had announced near the end of the war, in which he urged artists to return to classical, rationalist and humanist values. These were the great traditions of the French people, the very essence of the Gallic spirit, which had carried France to victory. Many associated pre-war Cubism with undesirable foreign influences, and the sinister and destructive forces that they believed Germany to have embodied during the war. The artists who recently served on the front lines, as Léger had, returned from the war to find the progressive art world in Paris very different than they left it. Picasso, looking to past styles, had turned to a more traditional representation of the figure. His attraction to Neoclassicism seemed odd to many, and even treasonous to doctrinaire Cubists, but the freedom he had taken to appropriate and mix the styles of past masters seemed to hold more promise than another decade of Cubist-driven pictorial dislocations. Picasso still painted Cubist pictures, still-lifes mainly, but he now introduced simpler forms and a more classical notion of clarity into his compositions. Juan Gris and Gino Severini sought balance, precision and order in their "crystal" Cubist paintings. Amadée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier) were in the process of distilling their forms even further in anticipation of the Purist style of L'Esprit nouveau.
The Louvre had been closed during the war and its collection placed in storage for safe-keeping. The galleries were re-installed in 1919-1920 and opened to the public. Treasures from the trove of medieval art in the Musée de Cluny were also on view once again. The accessibility of these art works gave further impetus to the Neoclassical revival. Léger was amazed at the ability of the manuscript illuminators and the primitivist painters of the 14th and 15th centuries to create figures that projected a powerful pictorial presence, placed as they were against flat, patterned backgrounds that made minimal use of developed perspective. He was especially interested in the rounded and full-bodied forms seen in the figures of the 15th century French master Jean Fouquet (fig. 2). Among later French painters he was drawn to the Le Nain brothers, whose La famille de paysans dans un intérieur (fig. 3) quickly became a favorite among modern artists for the classic simplicity of its realism, and the straightforward and non-sentimentalized treatment that the brothers had accorded their subject. Léger realized that genre painting, which the Impressionists and successive modernists had dismissed, was actually still viable, provided that its elements were drawn strictly from modern life and were depicted without the overlay of sentiment that genre painters customarily imposed on their subjects. This is the task he set for himself, which he would undertake by treating the human figure, as he stated, "not as a sentimental element, but solely as a plastic element" (quoted in ibid., p. 46). In this way he could utilize, transform and revitalize virtually any traditional subject or pictorial convention he chose.
Léger first turned to the nude, a historically hot and loaded subject that would put his new attitude of cool, classic detachment fully to the test. In 1921, he painted a series of canvases on the theme of Le déjeuner (fig. 4). In these paintings Léger achieved a successful synthesis of modernity and tradition; nevertheless, the nude, with its suggestion of the Orientalist odalisque and other irreparably dated conventions, did not sufficiently fit the bill as an authentic modern subject. Léger continued painting nudes into 1922, often in mixed compositions with clothed figures, which display some unease and diffidence with this subject. Later that year Léger painted a new series of interiors (Bauquier, nos. 331-336; figs. 5 and 6), including Trois personnages, in which one, two or three fully clothed figures have been posed in contemporary settings.
Trois personnages, like the other pictures in this theme-group, was painted on a broadly rectangular canvas. The setting is a solarium whose windows and open French doors reveal the distant features of a rural landscape. Using the door panels, Léger has divided the composition into three sections, in the manner of a medieval altarpiece, comprising a central panel and two wings. The three figures occupy the central section, crowded into the doorway. Léger has made little if any attempt in this two-dimensional world to create the illusion of normal spatial relationships. Space has been completely compressed and flattened, and then framed and sectioned by a Mondrian-like grid. As crammed as the composition may appear in places, each object, furnishing and figure has been clearly delineated and occupies a space of its own. Leger has employed in rendering them a lively variety of contrasting shapes and forms. Discussing the related La mère et enfant (fig. 5), Christopher Green has observed:
"With deliberate clarity Léger declares a simple everyday subject as the excuse for a monumental figure painting, a subject which is emphatically the 1920s equivalent of Louis Le Nain's peasant family subject, and the curious combination of authentic informality and stiff, slightly self-conscious posing, the feeling of figures who have frozen at the painter's request in the middle of the most ordinary domestic moment is precisely that of the Louvre Famille de paysans. Here too a classic monumentality emerges from the most ordinary of popular themes, and it is worth pointing out that it was in 1922 that Léger began his retreats with Jeanne his wife to the countrified suburban calm of his little house at Fontenay-aux roses so that the subject could well have been extracted from the calmer moments of his own daily routine, from the small-scale comforts of his own life" (in Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London November-January 1971, p. 67).
Léger's pictorial clarity notwithstanding, the gender of the two standing figures at right is mysteriously ambiguous, perhaps even deliberately so. Reduced to purely "plastic elements", Léger's figures appear to have shed even their gender-related aspects and sentiments, and become quasi-androgynous. In the more simplified related version (fig. 6), all the figures are clearly female, in keeping with Léger's tendency to depict the interior, domestic world as a feminine environment. Men, on the other hand, occupy the outdoor and woodsy Paysage animé paintings of 1921 (Bauquier, nos. 267-285). Trois personnages might describe a family of father, mother and child (either a boy or a girl), but a more interesting reading would presume these figures to be a woman symbolically evolving through the three stages of life, represented here, as in the other version, by three female generations. Here this emblematic, universal and modern female rests in a special passageway, the door, which lies at the boundary between the human context of the home and the natural world outside. This duality is reiterated in the wings of the composition, symbolized by the lamp on one side, and the potted aloe plant on the other.
In Trois personnages devant le jardin Léger has dovetailed multiple layers of meaning within the contrasting forms of figure and object, and transformed space with geometry to create a masterly synthesis of form and idea. Here classicism coexists with modernism, tradition informs innovation and is in turn transformed and renewed. Léger has imposed his own "call to order" and design on this corner of human existence, investing the transient and quotidian aspects seen in this casual slice of contemporary life with qualities that are more durable and profound. This is the classical vision, the evocation of a world where we simultaneously exist both in passing and in permanence, physically moving through time, but with a mind for our image fixed in time, and for all time.
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Le moteur, 1918. Formerly in the Collection of René Gaffé. Sold, Christie's, New York, 6 November 2001, lot 9. BARCODE 20626938
(fig. 2) Jean Fouquet, Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins, chancellier de France, 1450-1460. Musée de Louvre, Paris. BARCODE 20626921
(fig. 3) Antoine and/or Louis Le Nain, La famille de paysans dans un interieur, circa 1642. Musée de Louvre, Paris. BARCODE 20626914
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Le petit déjeuner, 1921; formerly in the collection of Burton and Emily Tremaine. Sold Christie's, New York, 5 November 1991, lot 10. BARCODE 20626907
(fig. 5) Fernand Léger, La mère et l'enfant, 1922. Kunstmuseum, Basel. BARCODE 20626891
(fig. 6) Fernand Léger, Personnages dans un jardin, 1922. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 20626884
Les trois personnages devant le jardin
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated 'F LEGER 22' (lower right)
Northampton, Smith College, 1948.
New York, Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences Museum, Private Collections, 1958, no. 22.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., The Colin Collection, 1960, no. 41 (illustrated).
New York, The Lotus Club, Lotus Leaf, 1961, p. 11.
New York, Galerie Chalette, The Figure, 1965, no. 7 (illustrated).
Richmond, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Collector of the Year, 1970.
New York, Acquavella Galleries, Fernand Léger, October-December 1987, p. 56, no. 31 (illustrated in color; titled Trois Personnes dans un Jardin).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
25 x 36 in. (63.5 x 91.5 cm.)
The New York Times, 12 January 1958, p. 79 (illustrated).
"A Selection of Works from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Colin," Art International, 1958, vol. IV, 2/3, p. 47 (illustrated).
"The distinctive Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Colin," The Connoisseur, London, April-May 1960, p. 208 (illustrated).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint 1920-1924, Paris, 1992, vol. II, p. 235, no. 333 (illustrated in color).
Galerie Simon [D.-H. Kahnweiler], Paris.
Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris.
Georges Bernheim, Paris.
Elaine Oppenheimer, Paris.
Galerie Niveau, New York.
Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Colin, New York.
Private collection, New York.
Acquired by the present owner, 1999.