Léger's heroic Femme en bleu is one of the grandes dames of Cubism. This spectacular image is one the movement's most enduring achievements and a milestone on the path to abstraction. Created on the eve of the First World War, it captures the watershed moment when Léger pushed beyond figuration, a radical gesture which would find full expression in his celebrated Contrastes de formes of 1913.
Léger's obsession with this image gave way to three major interpretations, all completed within months of each other, that stress various points in the artist's development. The first of these works was an oil 'study' from 1912, the same size as the present picture, that Léger kept in his private collection until his death, when it was given to the Musée National Fernand Léger in Biot (see fig. 1). The second, which is the largest, or 'definitive,' version, also dates from 1912 and was included in the annual Salon that year in Paris and in the Armory Show in New York in 1913. It passed through Léger's two dealers, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg, to the collection of Raoul La Roche, who ultimately donated it to the Basel Kunstmuseum (see fig. 2). The third version – the present composition – is dated on the canvas 12-13 and represents a reworking of the 1912 composition now in the Léger Museum, Biot. Léger sent this triumphant reprisal of La Femme en bleu, together with eight others, to Berlin for Herwarth Walden's ground-breaking exhibition at the Galerie Der Sturm the end of 1913 (see fig. 4). It was exhibited alongside the other eight works, including major paintings such as Le Modèle nu dans l'atelier. Together with the rest of the group it remained in Germany throughout the duration of World War I, according to correspondence between Léger and his dealer Léonce Rosenberg. In the late 1920s, it was acquired by the leading art collector, Hermann Lange, in whose family collection it has since remained.
Hermann Lange (1874-1942), a wealthy silk manufacturer based in Krefeld, was one of Germany's foremost French avant-garde and German Expressionist art collectors before World War II. He built up a seminal collection of works by artists such as Picasso, Chagall, Kirchner, Léger, Gris, Lehmbruck and Marc. Lange's acquisition of this Léger painting coincided with the construction of his new home in Krefeld, a definitively Modernist space designed and built by Germany's premier architect, Mies van der Rohe, between 1927 and 1930 to house Lange's magnificent collection (see fig. 10). The house, which is now part of the Krefeld's art museum, was conceived as a showcase for Lange's collection of 20th century art, including major Modern and Expressionist works. Lange was also in possession of at least three other pictures by Léger in addition to the present work, and Léger indeed recognized him among his top four patrons in Germany. On the occasion of a one-man exhibition of his work at the Galerie Flechtheim in Berlin in 1928, Léger singled out his German collectors in a sentiment of gratitude: "Lange und Raemische in Krefeld, Reber und Flechtheim." In 1999 the major Kirchner street scene, Potsdamer Platz, 1914 (see fig. 3) a masterpiece of German Expressionism from the Lange collection, was sold by his heirs to the Nationalgalerie Berlin and the funds were exclusively used to set up a charitable foundation for social and cultural projects.
It is in this third and final composition that Léger unites the figuration of the two earlier Femmes en bleu of 1912 with the bold, primary color palette of Contrastes de formes, his brand new series in 1913 (see fig. 7). Seated at a table with a glass and sugar cube to her left, the woman in this astonishingly abstracted composition clasps her hands in her lap and turns her head in three-quarters profile. Her most salient feature is her blue dress, which dominates the center of the composition in a vertical cascade of blue trapezoidal forms. The dress itself defines the curves and swells of her body against a complex background of black, red and yellow fragments. Léger arrived at the original idea for the trio of Femme en bleu oils through his admiration for the paintings of Cézanne (see fig. 6). When Léger saw these post-Impressionist compositions at Cézanne's memorial exhibition in 1907, he was astonished by how the elder artist could reveal the geometry inherent in the body. By 1912, the grip of Cézanne's influence had reached its intensity, propelling Léger into a creative exorcism for the sake of his more avant-garde aspirations. "In 1912-13 it had been a battle to leave Cézanne behind," Léger would recall years later. "The effort one had to make was so enormous that, in order to break away, I had to resort to abstraction. At last, in the Femme en bleu and the Passage à niveau, I felt that I had freed myself from Cézanne and that, at the same time, I had gone very far from the Impressionist tune."
This shift towards abstraction is evidenced to varying degrees by the present composition and the two earlier versions of La Femme en bleu. Like the Cubist portraits of his colleague Picasso (see fig. 5), Léger's picture features a traditional subject, rendered with limited references to her activity or her identity. In the Basel picture, for example, the woman is supposedly sewing, as indicated by the pair of scissors in the lower left corner. Those scissors, or any other identifying feature as to her activity, are absent in the present work and in the Biot picture, which both depict a figure who is relatively liberated from a narrative context. But as abstract and divorced from narrative as he intended his art to be, Léger was well aware that his subject for La Femme en bleu was rooted in an example from the past. In each successful rendering in oil, he addresses this dichotomy of modernity versus tradition, varying the level of description from picture to picture. Christopher Green provides the following analysis of this tendency by comparing the Biot and Basel pictures, and he proposes that perhaps it is a reaction to the Futurist's criticisms of the artist's 'static' and 'traditional' subject: "....A look at the relationship between the Basel version of La Femme en bleu and the large, so-called Etude at Biot shows clearly that he was concerned with strengthening the collision between anti-descriptive and descriptive elements as he moved from one stage to the next. Thus, not only are strategic points of pictorial contrasts sharpened in the more elaborate Basel canvas, but so too is his treatment of descriptive effects clarified. The turned back chair, the woman's head and hands are all given increased definition in both formal and descriptive terms, sharpening the sense of a subject, and therefore the sense of a subject under attack. Among the angular blue planes and the shifting surfaces the part of the figure and her setting stand out, like the hands and the watch-chain of Picasso's Kahnweiler portrait, as clues to a subject which is still very much there but whose identity and importance has been decisively challenged" (Christopher Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven and London, 1976, p. 50).
Léger inscribed the present work on the back of the canvas with the word 'esquisse,' (see fig. 9) but this classification is somewhat misleading. In a letter to his dealer Léonce Rosenberg, Léger indicated that his various oil studies were complete works in and of themselves. As in the case of the present work, these pictures were all part of a continuum that illustrated the artist's aesthetic concept at a given point. Given his process of development at this point in his career and his unyielding fascination with his 'woman in blue,' Léger must have felt that he had even more to explore when he painted this third version of the subject. Indeed, the present picture also dates from around the same time that Léger was working on Le Modèle nu dans l'atelier (see fig. 8). This later picture is considered yet another evolutionary step of the Femme en bleu idiom, and in fact it hung along side the present work at the Galerie Der Sturm exhibition.
The orchestrator of the legendary Galerie Der Sturm exhibition in 1913 was the poet Herwarth Walden. Walden was Germany's leading impresario of the contemporary art scene and ran an avant-garde arts publication titled Der Sturm between 1910 and 1932. The publication included illustrations from such artists as Kokoschka, Chagall and Klee. Beginning in 1911, Walden staged an exhibition at his Galerie Der Sturm, featuring the latest examples of works by the Blaue Reiter and the Italian Futurists. In 1913, he diversified his exhibition even further, this time personally inviting the contributions of 75 avant-garde artists from 12 countries, including Léger. It was to this exhibition in the fall of 1913, formally called the Erster deutscher Herbstsalon, that Léger sent the present work.
This work as has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Fernand Léger Paris - New York to be held at the Beyeler Foundation, Basel from 1 June - 7 September 2008.
This work has also been requested for the forthcoming exhibition The Invention of the 20th Century: Einstein and the Avant-garde to be held at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid from 11 November 2008 - 16 February 2009.
This work will be included in the supplement to the Léger catalogue raisonné being prepared by Madame Irus Hansma.
Oil on canvas
Berlin, Galerie Der Sturm, Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon, 1913, no. 252 (titled Die Frau in Blau)
51 by 38 in. 130 by 97 cm
Christian Zervos, Fernand Léger, Oeuvres de 1905 à 1952, Paris, 1952, illustrated p. 33
Quadrum, no. 2, Brussels, November 1956, featured in an in situ photograph of the 1952 exhibition p. 19
Ewald Rathke, Vom Impressionismus zum Bauhaus, Hanau, 1967, no. 39, illustrated (upside-down and titled La femme en bleu)
Georg Brühl, Herwarth Walden und 'Der Sturm', Cologne, 1983, reprinted listing of the Der Sturm 1913 exhibition p. 250
Anette Kruszynski et al., K20K21, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Anno 2005/2006, Düsseldorf, 2006, illustrated in color p. 63
Galerie Der Sturm (Herwarth Walden), Berlin (on consignment from the artist from 1913)
Galerie Neumann-Nierendorf, Berlin (by 1927)
Hermann Lange, Krefeld (acquired circa 1928)
Thence by descent to the present owners