Joseph Fernand Henri Léger
French, 1881- 1955

Joseph Fernand Henri Léger was born on February 4, 1881, in Argentan, France where his father raised cattle. After apprenticing with an architect in Caen from 1897 to 1899, Léger settled in Paris in 1900, and supported himself as an architectural draftsman. He applied to the École des Beaux-Arts* and was rejected. Nevertheless he attended classes there beginning in 1903 as a non-enrolled student and also studied at the Académie Julian. He began to work seriously as a painter at the age of 25.

Léger’s earliest-known works, which date from 1905, were primarily influenced by Impressionism. The experience of seeing the Paul Cézanne retrospective at the 1907 Salon d’Automne and his contact with the early Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had a significant impact on the development of his style—it focused the artist more on drawing and geometry. His critics would label his personal style of Cubism as ‘Tubism’ due to its emphasis on cylindrical forms. 

From 1911 to 1914 Léger’s work became increasingly abstract, and he started to limit his palette to the primary colors and black & white. In 1912 he was given his first solo show at Galerie Kahnweiler, Paris. Leger made three visits to the United States in the 1930s. New York impressed the artist as he wrote to friend Le Corbusier. In 1935 the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Art Institute of Chicago held exhibitions of his work. Léger lived in the United States from 1940 to 1945 where he taught at Yale University and Mills College but returned to France after the war.

In the decade before his death, Léger’s wide-ranging projects included book illustrations, monumental figure paintings and murals, stained-glass windows, mosaics, polychrome ceramic sculptures, and set and costume designs. In 1955 he won the Grand Prize at the São Paulo Bienal. Léger died on August 17 of that year at his home in Gif-sur-Yvette, France. The Musée Fernand Léger was inaugurated in 1960 in Biot, France.

Léger's influence can be found in the works of Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Milton Resnick, Louise Bourgeois, Richard Lindner, Arshile Gorky, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Brice Marsden, Frank Stella, Tom Wesselmann and James Rosenquist, among others. In May 2008, a Leger painting 'Study for a Woman in Blue' set an auction record for the artist selling for $39.2 million dollars--bidding between only two bidders.