Still Life with a Beer Mug 1921–2 is a rectangular, vertically oriented oil painting by the French artist Fernand Léger. The painting depicts a traditional Bavarian-style beer mug in the forefront of the composition sitting on a simple, square wooden table which is surrounded by everyday lunch items, such as butter pots, a knife and a fruit plate. The table and beer mug are painted in vibrant colours including yellow, orange, red and blue, while the surrounding elements are executed in a contrasting palette consisting of black, grey and white, with some patches of colour. The colourful table is juxtaposed against a flat geometric kitchen backdrop, represented by a black and white diamond-patterned floor and a gridded kitchen wall and window frame. The flat geometry of the kitchen is interrupted by a dark blue curtain, which, like the beer mug and its surrounding objects, is rendered in a slightly more naturalistic style due to the employment of light and shade.
Léger made Still Life with a Beer Mug by executing a preliminary graphite sketch and transferring it onto a primed canvas. Evidence of Léger’s initial sketch can be seen in the graphite ‘squaring up’ grid-lines visible at the edge of the canvas and in areas where the paint has been more thinly applied. Although Léger painted the work using thick oil paints, there are no areas of impasto and little evidence of the artist’s brushstrokes. Preferring a flat graphic surface in his paintings in the 1920s, this brush-mark-free technique is evident in other works from the period, such as Le Grand Déjeuner 1921 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Femme à genoux 1921 (Denver Art Museum, Denver). The words ‘Nature Morte’ (‘still life’), ‘F. Léger’ and ‘Etat Definitif’ (‘final state’) are hand-painted and underlined in capital letters on the back of the canvas along with the date ‘1921’. A circle has also been added in paint around the words ‘Etat Definitif’.
According to Tate curator Ronald Alley, several different versions of Still Life with a Beer Mug are in existence. There is also photographic evidence that Léger reworked the painting after he submitted it to Galerie Simon in Paris in 1922 (see Alley 1981, p.418). A pencil study for Still Life with a Beer Mug dated 1921 forms part of the Lydia and Harry Lewis Winston collection in New York. However, this study has ‘less patterning and is slightly more realistic in treatment’ (Alley 1981, p.418). Alley has also recorded that ‘a smaller sketchier preliminary version’ of the painting, much closer to the final version, appeared in the Burlington Magazine in February 1972. This version is not as long or narrow in format and the diamond floor pattern is painted much more irregularly (see Alley 1981, p.418).
Deeply affected by his experiences on the front line during the First World War, Léger abandoned the form of cubism he had been pursuing up until 1914 and turned instead to what he called a new ‘reality of objects’ (see Peter de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven and London 1983, p.31). Art historian Robert Herbert has noted that Léger’s move away from the severe abstraction of his pre-war compositions and his return to classical subjects (such as the still life and the nude) was in part connected to a broader cultural movement in France during the 1920s that has been called the ‘Return to Order’. ‘By taking up a theme sanctioned by tradition,’ Herbert notes, Léger ‘hoped to integrate art history, as well as past time, into the present’ (Robert Herbert, Léger’s Le Grand Déjeuner, exhibition catalogue, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis 1980, p.13). ‘The Beautiful is everywhere’, acknowledged Léger in 1924, ‘perhaps [more so] in the arrangement of your saucepans on the white walls of your kitchen than in your eighteenth-century living room or in the official museums’ (quoted in Sophie Lévy (ed.), A Transatlantic Avant-Garde: American Artists in Paris, 1918–1939, Berkeley 2003, p.34).
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.417–8, reproduced p.417.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, revised edn, London 1991, p.168.
Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue Raisonné 1920–1924, Paris 1992, reproduced p.417.
Supported by Christie’s.