Biography of Fernand Léger, Forerunner of Pop Art

The artist turned images of industry into art

Fernand Leger working in his art studio
Fernand Leger in his Paris studio circa 1949.

Gjon Mili / Getty Images

Fernand Legér, born Joseph Fernand Henri Léger (February 4, 1881 – August 17, 1955), was a French artist, specializing in paintings, sculpture, and film. His innovative variants on cubism and figurative art led to him being regarded as a forerunner of the pop art movement.

Fast Facts: Fernand Léger

  • Full Name: Joseph Fernand Henri Léger
  • Occupation: Painter, sculptor, filmmaker
  • Born: February 4, 1881 in Argentan, France
  • Died: August 17, 1955 in Gif-sur-Yvette, France
  • Spouses: Jeanne-Augustine Lohy (m. 1919-1950), Nadia Khodossevitch (m. 1952-1955)
  • Key Accomplishments: Influenced by the industrial age and the two world wars, Fernand Leger developed a unique artistic outlook that preceded the developments and concerns of Pop Art.

Early Life

Fernand Legér was born in Argentan, in the Normandy (then Lower Normandy) region of France. His father was a cattle farmer. Little is known about his early life until he began his schooling and professional career.

Initially, Legér did not train in the arts. At the age of sixteen, he began training as an architect. He finished his formal architectural training in 1899, and the following year, he moved to Paris. For about a year or two, he worked as an architectural draftsman, but in 1902, he shifted into the military. Legér spent 1902 and 1903 in military service, based out of the city of Versailles.

Fernand Leger
French expatriate artist Fernand Leger standing in front of his completed murals. John Gutmann / Getty Images

After his military service ended, Legér attempted to get more formal art training. He applied to the École des Beaux-Arts but was rejected. Instead, he enrolled at the School of Decorative Arts. Ultimately, he attended the École des Beaux-Arts in a non-enrolled capacity for three years while also studying at the Académie Julian. It was not until the age of 25 that Legér began working as an artist in earnest. In those early days, his work was in the mold of the impressionists; later in his life, he destroyed many of these early paintings.

Developing His Art

In 1909, Legér moved to Montparnasse, an area of Paris known for being home to a wide array of creative artists, many of whom lived in poverty in order to pursue their art. While there, he met several other artists of the era. In 1910, he had his first exhibition, with his art displayed at the Salon d'Automne in the same room as that of Jean Metzinger and Henri Le Fauconnie. His most important painting at the time was Nudes in the Forest, which displayed his particular variation on cubism, dubbed “tubism” by art critic Louis Vauxcelles for its emphasis on cylindrical shapes.

Fernand Leger highlights shown from impressionist and modern art sale
Sotheby's employees pose for photographers with Fernand Leger's Cubist masterpiece 'Etude pour La Femme Bleu', on April 21, 2008 in London, England. Cate Gillon / Getty Images

Cubism was a relatively new movement at the time, and in 1911, Legér was part of a group that displayed the development to the general public for the first time. The Salon des Indépendants displayed together the work by painters identified as cubists: Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Henri Le Fauconnier, Robert Delaunay, and Fernand Léger. In 1912, Legér again exhibited work with the Indépendants and was part of a group of artists dubbed the “Section d’Or”—the “Gold Section.” His works of this era mostly were in palettes of primary colors or green, black, and white.

After the Great War

Like many of his countrymen, Fernand Legér served in World War I, then called the “Great War.” In 1914, he joined the army, and he spent the next two years serving at the Argonne. Although he was far from the studios and salons of Paris, he continued to make art. During his service, Legér sketched the instruments of war that he was surrounded by, along with some of his fellow soldiers. He nearly died from a mustard gas attack in 1916, and during his recovery, he painted The Card Players, full of frightening, mechanized figures that reflected his horror of what he had seen in the war.

His experiences in the war, which was the first massive war of the industrialized era, significantly influenced the next several years of his work. Referred to as his “mechanical” period, his work from the postwar years through the 1920s featured sleek, mechanical-looking shapes. As the world attempted to return to normalcy following the war, Legér made similar attempts, returning to “normal” subject matter: mothers and children, landscapes, female figure drawings, etc. However, his works continued to have that mechanical, orderly look to them.

Leger painting in Post War European Art Exhibition in Moscow
Fernand Leger's "Builders with Aloe", is seen at the Post-War European Art Exhibition at Pushkin Museum, in Moscow, Russia, March 6, 2017.  Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

It was during this time that Legér also got married. In December 1919, he wed Jeanne-Augustine Lohy. The couple did not have any children over the course of their three-decade marriage.

In many ways, his work fell under the umbrella of purism, an answer to cubism that focused on mathematical proportions and rationality, rather than intense emotions and impulses. Legér also was fascinated by the dawn of filmmaking, and for a time, he even considered abandoning his visual art to pursue cinema. In 1924, he produced and directed the film Ballet Mécanique, a Dadaist art film consisting of images of women’s facial features, everyday activities, and ordinary objects. He also experimented with murals, which became the most abstract of his paintings.

Later Career

By the end of the 1920s, Fernand Legér’s work had begun to evolve. Instead of sleek, cylindrical forms that evoked the machinery of industry and war alike, more organic influences—and irregular, lively shapes—took center stage. His figures took on more color and even some humor and playfulness. He began teaching more, starting a free school in 1924 along with Alexandra Exter and Marie Laurencin.

Fernand Leger with One of His Paintings
Painter Fernand Leger sits among his works in his Left Bank studio in 1948, following a trip to New York.  Bettmann / Contributor

In the 1930s, Legér made his first trips to the United States, traveling to the major hubs of New York City and Chicago. His artwork was displayed for the first time in America in 1935 with an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. A few years later, he was commissioned by American politician Nelson Rockefeller to decorate his personal apartment.

During World War II, Legér lived and worked in America, teaching at Yale University. His work from this era often juxtaposed organic or natural elements with industrial or mechanical imagery. He also found new inspiration for brightly colored paintings in the neon lights of New York, resulting in paintings that included bright stripes of color and starkly outlined figures.

Legér returned to France in 1945, after the war ended. There, he joined the Communist Party, although he was more of a humanist with socialist beliefs rather than a fervent, devoted Marxist. During this time, his paintings took a turn to depict more scenes of everyday life featuring the “common folk.” His work also became less abstract, emphasizing his stronger focus on ordinary people rather than the avant-garde world.

French painter Fernand Leger
French painter Fernand Leger straddeling a chair in front of an incomplete painting, holding paintbrushes, wearing a flannel plaid shirt and a striped tie, Venice 1950. Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche / Getty Images

In 1950, his wife Jeanne-Augustine died, and he remarried in 1952 to French artist Nadia Khodassevitch. Legér spent the next few years teaching in Switzerland and working on a variety of projects including stained glass windows, sculptures, mosaics, paintings, and even set and costume design. His final, unfinished project was a mosaic for the São Paulo Opera. Fernand Legér died on August 17, 1955 at his home in France. As the first artist to focus on the industrial and machine age, creating images that reflected modern consumer society, he is considered a forerunner of pop art.

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