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Fernand Léger
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Argentan, France
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Gif-sur-Yvette, France
One of France’s best-known artists of the 20th century, Fernand Léger created art in a great variety of media, including painting, printmaking, ceramics, mosaics, tapestries, motion pictures, and theater design and costuming. Born in Argentan (in Normandy south of Caen) in 1881, Léger was educated in local schools and at a parochial school in nearby Tinchebray, He apprenticed for an architect in Caen from 1897 to 1899, and then moved to Paris to work in an architect’s office. After military service in 1902, he enrolled in the École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, having been denied admission to the École des Beaux-Arts. He would later describe his years in the École as “empty and useless.” He also studied under Jean-Léon Gerôme (1824-1904) and Gabriel Ferrier (1847-1914) and worked at the Académie Julian. Léger supported himself working as a draftsman and retouching photographs for a commercial photographer while painting.. He exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1909. After 1910 Léger began painting in a Cubist style. The art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), who was representing Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), began buying paintings from Léger, and in 1912 mounted a solo exhibition of his work. His participation in the Maison Cubiste (Cubist House) at the 1912 Salon d’Automne marked him as one of the leading young artists of the day .Léger exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, which then moved to Boston and Chicago. Later that year Kahnweiler entered into a three-year agreement to represent Léger exclusively, and bought all the paintings in Léger’s studio. Drafted into the French Army in 1914 at the start of World War I, Léger was gassed at Verdun in 1916, and was hospitalized for much of 1917. While serving and while hospitalized, Léger created paintings and drawings reflecting his wartime experience. After his return in Paris in 1918, Léger work reflected images of machines. That year he married Jeanne Lohy (1895-1950), did his first book illustrations, and engaged a new dealer, Léonce Rosenberg (1879-1947), who staged a solo exhibition of Léger’s work at Rosenberg’s new Galerie de l’Effort Moderne in 1919. His colorful machine-style painting “The City” (Philadelphia Museum of Art) from 1919 combines elements of the fabric of a city into an abstract composition. Léger designed a magazine cover in 1919, created his first lithographs in 1920 and illustrated additional books. By this time Léger was associated with the artist Amédée Ozenfant (1886-1966) and the artist and architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1867-1965, better known as Le Corbusier) in a style that became known as Purism, perhaps best demonstrated by his painting “The Mechanic” (1920, Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada). On his mother’s death in 1922, Léger inherited her farm at Lisores, Normandy; he would visit it frequently in summers.In 1924 he began teaching at an art school, the Académie de l’Art Moderne, where he was soon joined by Ozenfant. Léger directed the school until 1939. He produced and directed a film without a screenplay, “Le Ballet Mécanique,” a series of quickly changing images, some photographed by Man Ray (1890-1976), set to music by American composer George Antheil (1900-1959). Léger painted two sets of murals exhibited in the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925, one set for the Pavilion of Tourism and another for Le Corbusier’s Pavilon de L’Esprit Nouveau. His first one-man exhibition in the United States took place at New York’s Anderson Galleries in 1925. By 1930 Léger’s art included the human form, such as his “Mona Lisa with Keys” (1930, Biot, Musée National Fernand Léger). His first trip to American occurred in 1931, coinciding with an exhibition of his work at the New York Gallery Durand-Ruel. Shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago occasioned another American trip in 1935, followed by a third trip in 1938-39, when he decorated the New York apartment of Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908-1979) and lectured at Yale University. Escaping the occupation of Paris in World War II, Léger went to New York City in October 1940, where he maintained a studio for the duration of the war. He taught at Yale in 1940 and at Mills College in Oakland in 1941. He exhibited in several American cities and was very productive, painting over 120 works while in America. After his return to Paris in 1946, Léger continued painting, designed sets and costumes for ballets, created a series of lithographs and re-opened his academy, now directed by Nadia Khodassievitch (1904-1982), who had been a student in 1924. Many Americans were among the students, including Sam Francis (1923-1994). Léger expanded his repertoire to works in stained glass and mosaics for churches and other buildings, large ceramic works and tapestries. His work for the theater included sets and 600 costumes for an opera by Darius Milhaud (1882-1974). His wife Jeanne died in 1950, and in 1952 he married his assistant Nadia. Léger died of a heart attack in 1955 at his home in Gif-sur-Yvette in the suburbs southwest of Paris. (TNB 3/2015) Selected bibliography: Néret, Gilles. F. Léger. Translated by Susan D. Resnick. New York: BDD Illustrated Books, 1993.