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The City
The City, 1919
Fernand Léger, French
Oil on canvas
7 feet 7 inches x 9 feet 9 1/2 inches (231.1 x 298.4 cm)
A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952
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About This Painting

In The City Fernand Léger paints the brilliance, excitement, and vitality of modern urban life. Flat, solid shapes, angles and curves, areas of dark and light, and lines of motion and rest all exist simultaneously. Our eyes dart from scaffolding, apartment buildings, stairs, and stenciled letters to billowing smoke, robotic figures, silhouettes, and an imposing telephone pole. These recognizable images, along with vivid colors and abstract shapes, leap from the canvas to compete for our attention.

Living in Paris in 1919, Léger was affected by the after shocks of the Industrial Revolution and the ever-changing life of the modern city dweller. Among his many interests from this time, Léger was greatly influenced by the cinema as an exciting new means of communication. He was impressed by how rapidly the camera could cut from image to image without regard for time or location. The camera could focus on a single detail and give it new significance, or pull back from an area to create a full view. In The City, Léger incorporates similar cinematic techniques. Shapes, patterns, and figures become fragments that create a staccato rhythm as they overlap and jut against each other. Similar to a zoomed camera image, individual letters and shapes are isolated and seem to acquire new meaning. The vertical "pole" creates a sense of stability amidst an explosion of color and shape. It also divides the painting into two distinct sides, which again compete for our attention. The size of this large canvas spans 7 ½’ x 10’ (2.3 x 3m), and reminds us of a motion picture screen with the camera pulling back into a panoramic view.

In the middle of the painting, surrounded by the city, Léger includes his concept of people in this new, urban environment. Reduced to simple shapes, the artist painted their flesh as if it were made from metal pipes. Humans have become part of the "machine" and function harmoniously with the rest of the bustling city. The robotic figures mechanically descend a seemingly endless staircase while puffs of smoke rise from an obscured source next to monumental letters that advertise something ambiguous. Léger was careful not to present any particular place in The City; instead he depicts the essence of an urban center with its overwhelming simultaneous impressions. For this reason, he has been called the preeminent painter of the modern city.

About This Artist

Fernand Léger was born in Argentan, a small town in northern France, in 1881. His father, a live stock farmer, died just three years later. Léger grew up with his mother and dreamed of becoming an artist. When he was sixteen, his uncle encouraged him to study architecture, and he later worked as both an apprentice and draftsman for architects in Paris. By the time he was twenty-two, Léger had completed his military service at Versailles and was finally able to pursue his career as an artist.

Rejection from the very competitive and somewhat conservative École des Beaux-Arts did not discourage Léger. He still attended classes there that were open to the general public, and later enrolled at the École des Arts Décoratifs.

In Paris Léger found an artistic climate in which his work could flourish. Paris had become a symbol of culture and the center of the art world. Léger settled in a part of the city that sheltered a whole commune of artists such as Henri Laurens, Jacques Lipchitz, Marc Chagall, and Robert Delaunay, who gave him useful advice and encouragement. Working at the same time Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were experimenting with cubist and abstract ways of painting, Léger made paintings that were full of cylindrical forms, spherical shapes, and bold, contrasting colors. He exhibited his work with other cubist painters, but Léger’s style was so different that art critics jokingly called him a "Tubist."

As the artistic "Spokesman for the Machine Age," Léger began to fill his canvases with mechanical forms. By 1919 he had brought together his two favorite subjects, the human figure and machine forms, in his monumental painting The City, which is recognized as a landmark in twentieth-century art.

Léger proclaimed that the artist must be, "in tune with his own time." Throughout his career, his art and life reflected this philosophy. Léger loved the machines of the twentieth century and was captivated by their speed and precision. He admired airplanes, automobiles, and railroads, but he was even more fascinated by their engines and propellers.


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