Two Women Holding Flowers is a large oil on canvas painting by French artist Fernand Léger, made in 1954. Two stylised nude female forms, on occupy most of the picture plane. One sits while the other reclines, their forms intermingling and contorting, fitting neatly along the length and breadth of the canvas. It is unclear where one body ends and the other begins. Their limbs form a loose rectangle within the painting and both women gaze directly out at the viewer. The reclining woman holds a flower by its stem while the seated woman reaches out towards her companion. The figures have thick black outlines with touches of grey paint giving definition to an otherwise flat composition. Parts of their bodies, such as their breasts, faces and hair, have been delineated in a highly stylised manner. Flat, bold areas of red, blue, yellow and orange overlay parts of the figures. The background is plain white, apart from the inclusion of what may be a window at the right-hand edge of the image. Léger has signed and dated the painting in black paint in the bottom right corner.
It is likely that Léger painted this work in his studio in Gif-sur-Yvette, Chevreuse, to which he moved in 1952. It was produced by applying oil paint in decisive, bold brushstrokes. The contour lines of the figures have been painted over the flat areas of colour. Two earlier versions of this composition are known to exist, both from 1954: the first is a smaller oil painting showing some variation in colour, pattern and shading, and the second is a small gouache with a very similar composition to Two Women Holding Flowers, but a different arrangement of colours.
The traditional theme of the nude was a regular feature of Léger’s art and had played an important role in the cubist revival of neo-classicism spearheaded by Pablo Picasso after the First World War. Art historian Yve-Alain Bois has described how in the post-war period Léger, unlike many of his colleagues, ‘opted for the heroic–monumental genre’ (Foster, Krauss, Bois and others 2004, p.316). He often paired female nudes in an image in order to explore the rhythmic patterns of the body. An earlier example is The Two Sisters 1935 (Staatliche Museen Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Berlin). Two Women Holding Flowers was produced at a time when Léger, a committed socialist and communist, was painting energetic images of builders, circus performers and lively scenes of modern life. Although Two Women Holding Flowers lacks a precise narrative, its boldly contorted figures can be regarded an equally modern exploration and celebration of shape and form.
The use of bright primary colours was, by 1954, an established feature of Léger’s work and his preoccupation with a ‘rigorously clear vision of forms and colours’ has been traced by art historian André Verdet to his La Femme en bleu 1912 (Kunstmuseum, Basel). Léger explained how his use of colour diverged from that of his close associate and founder of orphism, Robert Delaunay:
He continued the Impressionist tradition of juxtaposing complementary colours, red against green. I did not want to use two complementary colours together any more. I wanted to isolate the colours, to produce a very red red a very blue blue. If one places a yellow next to a blue, one immediately produces a complementary colour, green. Delaunay was moving in the direction of the modification of colour, while I strove to achieve clarity of colour and of mass and contrast.
(Quoted in Verdet 1970, p.14.)
Two Women Holding Flowers features clearly delineated areas of primary and secondary colours, which both enhance the black outlines of the figures but also exist outside these lines as forms in their own right, adding to the dynamic rhythm of the composition.
Two Women Holding Flowers was painted the year before Léger died – a time of international success and increasing commissions in the applied arts, most significantly his murals for the United Nations building in New York in 1952. A major retrospective of his work had been held at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, in 1949. Léger’s legacy has been widespread: his use of a bold graphic aesthetic, reduced forms and clear colours finds reference in the work of abstract artists such as Stuart Davis (1894–1964) and Frank Stella (b.1936) and pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997).
Andre Vérdet, Léger, London 1970.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.420, reproduced p.420.
Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and others, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, London 2004.
Supported by Christie’s.