French painter Fernand Leger was aligned with the cubist movement and was, an innovator in abstract art. He studied briefly at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1903. By 1911 he had become friendly with Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso and had exhibited at the Salon des Independants. Leger continually experimented with color, shape, movement, and space.
He was originally trained as an architect's draughtsman and photographic retoucher. Having failed the entrance exam to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1903, he studied at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs and the Academie Julian. In 1909 he ranked as one of the three major Cubists and became a member of the Puteaux group in 1911. He was the first of the Cubists to experiment with non-figurative abstraction, contrasting curvilinear forms against a rectilinear grid.
He renounced abstraction during the First World War, when he claims to have discovered the beauty of common objects, which he described as 'everyday poetic images'. He began painting in a clean and precise style, in which objects are defined in their simplest terms in bold colours, taking cityscape and machine parts as his subject matter. In 1924 he made a 'film without scenario', Ballet Mecanique, in which he contrasted machines and inanimate objects with humans and their body parts.
During the Second World War, Leger lived in the USA where he taught at Yale, returning to Paris in 1945, when he opened an academy. His large paintings celebrating the people, featuring acrobats, cyclists and builders, thickly contoured and painted in clear, flat colours, reflected his political interest in the working class, and his attempt to create accessible art. From 1946 to 1949 he worked on a mosaic for the facade of the church at Assy, produced windows and tapestries for the church at Ardincourt in 1951, as well as windows for the University of Caracas in 1954. In 1950 he founded a ceramics studio at Biot, which, in 1957, became the Leger Museum. In 1967 it became a national museum. Leger was one of the giants of French painting this century, whose influence has been almost as great as his reputation.
Fernand Léger died at his home in 1955 and is buried in Gif-sur-Yvette, Essonne.
The relations of geometric forms and mechanical elements-cranks, pistons, cogs, and robots-were an important part of his artistic vision. Leger came to the United States in 1940 to escape the German forces in Paris. He traveled extensively, and his work during this period was inspired by the American industrial landscape. It was at this point that he began to minimize the connection between color and outline. Leger experimented with lithography (a highly successful medium for him) at the Paris Atelier 17. Today his paintings and prints can be seen in prominent museums throughout the world.
Léger wrote in 1945 that "the object in modern painting must become the main character and overthrow the subject. If, in turn, the human form becomes an object, it can considerably liberate possibilities for the modern artist." He elaborated on this idea in his 1949 essay, "How I Conceive the Human Figure", where he wrote that "abstract art came as a complete revelation, and then we were able to consider the human figure as a plastic value, not as a sentimental value. That is why the human figure has remained willfully inexpressive throughout the evolution of my work". As the first painter to take as his idiom the imagery of the machine age, and to make the objects of consumer society the subjects of his paintings, Léger has been called a progenitor of Pop art.
He was active as a teacher for many years, first at the Académie Vassilieff in Paris, then in 1931 at the Sorbonne, and then developing his own Académie Fernand Léger, which was in Paris, then at the Yale School of Art and Architecture (1938-1939), Mills College Art Gallery in Oakland, California during 1940-1945, before he returned to France. Among his many pupils were Nadir Afonso, Paul Georges, Charlotte Gilbertson, Hananiah Harari, Asger Jorn, Michael Loew, Beverly Pepper, Victor Reinganum, Marcel Mouly, René Margotton, Saloua Raouda Choucair and Charlotte Wankel, Peter Agostini, Lou Albert-Lasard, Tarsila do Amaral, Arie Aroch, Alma del Banco, Christian Berg, Louise Bourgeois, Marcelle Cahn, Otto Gustaf Carlsund, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Robert Colescott, Lars Englund, Tsuguharu Foujita, Sam Francis, Serge Gainsbourg, Hans Hartung, Florence Henri, Asger Jorn, William Klein, Maryan, George Lovett Kingsland Morris, Marlow Moss, Aurélie Nemours, Gerhard Neumann, Jules Olitski, Erik Olson, Beverly Pepper, and Richard Stankiewicz.
In 1952, a pair of Léger murals was installed in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations headquarters in New York, New York.
In 1960, the Musée Fernand Léger was opened in Biot, Alpes-Maritimes, France.
In May 2008, his painting, Étude pour la femme en bleu (1912–13) sold for $39,241,000 (hammer price with buyer's premium) United States dollars.
In August 2008, one of Léger's paintings owned by Wellesley College's Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Mother and Child, was reported missing. It is believed to have disappeared some time between April 9, 2007 and November 19, 2007. A $100,000 reward is being offered for information that leads to the safe return of the painting.
Léger's work was featured in the exhibition "Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis" from October 14, 2013, through January 5, 2014, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.