Fernand Léger

The Acrobat and his Partner


In Tate Modern

Fernand Léger 1881–1955
Original title
L'Acrobate et sa partenaire
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1302 × 1626 mm
frame: 1402 × 1727 × 75 mm
Purchased 1980


The Acrobat and his Partner 1948 is a rectangular, horizontally oriented oil painting by French artist Fernand Léger. The painting depicts a male acrobat whose body is twisted into an unnatural circular pose and who appears to be somersaulting through the air while holding a pale yellow flowering plant. In the left of the composition is a woman with long blonde hair wearing a short white pleated skirt and a purple sleeveless blouse. She faces forward while hooking a large white ladder onto her left shoulder and draping it diagonally across her body. In the background of the composition and directly beneath the somersaulting acrobat is a large, irregularly shaped circular target composed of wide, wavy concentric bands in vibrant shades of red, blue, yellow, green, and white. The bands give the impression of weaving their way behind the woman’s ladder and through four other mechanical-looking elements positioned in the four corners of the painting. Beneath the acrobat, a cartoonish grey cat sits on an oversized and intricately patterned white, red and black dining chair. The cat is motionless, staring upwards at the unfolding performance, while the woman and the acrobat stare rigidly outwards at the viewer.

Léger routinely made several studies of the same subject before executing a final painting, and an earlier, smaller version of The Acrobat and his Partner exists entitled L’Acrobate dans le cirque 1948 (see Bauquier 1992, pp.230–1). The Acrobat and his Partner is rendered in oil paint on a linen canvas. Instead of using a traditional white priming agent, Léger applied a thin ground layer of neutral beige paint that mimics the natural colour of the canvas, and in certain areas he deliberately left the ground exposed. Léger applied the remaining paint with some areas of low impasto, but with very little evidence of brushstrokes. The work is inscribed ‘48/F. LEGER’ on its front at the bottom right corner, and the title ‘L’ACROBATE ET/SA PARTENAIRE’ is written on the back of the canvas.

Léger had been fascinated by touring circus troupes since childhood, when he had seen them pass through Argentan, his hometown in rural France. The acrobat, the circus and the big top are themes that run throughout his work (see, for example The Acrobats in the Circus 1918, Kunstmuseum, Basel; Marie the Acrobat 1936, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Argentina; and The Great Parade 1954, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). In post-war France, the circus had come to symbolise an egalitarian space, and many artists – including Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall – regarded the circus as an environment in which culture, music and the performing arts could be accessed by a much broader public. Like Picasso, who had become a member the previous year, Léger joined the Communist Party in 1945. Along with his more socially minded artistic contemporaries, he frequented the Cirque Médrano in Montmartre, Paris, and made many works in response to it (see,for example, The Cirque Medrano 1918, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). In a 1924 essay Léger described his interest in the circus:

The Big Top is an absolutely marvellous world. When I am lost in this astonishing metallic planet with its dazzling spotlights and the tiny acrobat who risks his life every night, I am distracted … I am caught up by the strange architecture of coloured tent poles, metallic rods, and ropes that cross each other and sway under the effects of the lights.
(Fernand Léger, The Functions of Painting, London 1973, p.40.)

When The Acrobat and his Partner was first exhibited in June 1949 at Salon de Mai in Paris, Léger described the importance of movement in the work and the overall juxtaposition of the forms as follows:

The acrobat and disk that surrounds him represent movement. The flower in his hand, composed entirely of curves, heightens the impression of movement; so does the shape of the cat on the chair. The straight lines of the chair, those at the edge of the canvas on the same side, the ladder, and the acrobat’s partner form the static part of the picture, which contrasts violently with the dynamic part. The more contrasts there are in a picture, the stronger is the painting.
(Léger in Schmalenbach 1976, p.154.)

The Acrobat and his Partner can be seen to reflect two central themes of Léger’s late paintings: human figures in motion, including acrobats and musicians, and the leisure activities of the working population such as cycling, swimming and picnicking. As curator Simon Wilson has observed, Léger saw these particular themes as ‘tangible symbols of human freedom’ and the acrobat and his partner as heroes in the work, representing for Léger the dynamism of modern life (Wilson 1991, p.207).

Further reading
Werner Schmalenbach, Léger, New York 1976, p.154, reproduced p.155.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, revised edn, London 1991, p.207, reproduced p.207.
Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue Raisonné 1944–1948, Paris 1992, reproduced p.233.

Judith Wilkinson
April 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

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Online caption

This painting shows an two acrobats. Léger often captured figures moving, including acrobats and musicians. In post-war France, the circus became a symbol of the democratic space, open to the wider public. Léger regularly went to the circus in Paris and made a number of works in response to it. He said that he got ‘caught up by the strange architecture of coloured tent poles, metallic rods, and ropes that cross each other and sway under the effects of the lights.’ The Acrobat and his Partner reflects two key themes of Léger’s late paintings: human figures in motion and the leisure activities of the working population.

Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘48/F. LEGER’ bottom right and ‘L’ACROBATE ET/SA PARTENAIRE' on back of canvas
Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 × 64 7/8 (130.2 × 162.7)
Purchased from the Galerie Maeght (Grant-in-Aid) 1980
Prov: with Galerie Maeght, Paris (purchased from the artist's estate 1955 or 1956)
Exh: Salon de Mai, Paris, June–July 1949 (134, repr.); Segunda Exposicione de Plastica Francese Contemporanea, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, 1952 (69, repr.); Fernand Léger, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons, 1955 (66); Fernand Léger 1881–1955, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, June–October 1956 (125, repr.); Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, October–November 1956 (125, repr.); Léger: Wegbereider, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, December 1956–January 1957 (64); Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, February–March 1957 (64); Fernand Leger 1881–1955, Haus der Kunst, Munich, March–May 1957 (109, repr.); Fernand Léger: Five Themes and Variations, Guggenheim Museum, New York, February–April 1962 (103, repr.): Bilanz Internationale Malerei seit 1950, Kunsthalle, Basle, June–August 1964 (15); Fernand Léger 1881–1955, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, October–November 1964 (79b); Fernand Léger, Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Vienna, April–June 1968 (51, repr.); Fernand Léger, Städtische Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, December 1969–February 1970 (88, repr.in colour); A la Rencontrè de Pierre Reverdy et ses Amis, Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul, March–May 1970 (347); Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, June–July 1970 (347); Fernand Léger, Grand Palais, Paris, October 1971–January 1972 (223, repr.); Fernand Léger: Das figürliche Werk, Kunsthalle, Cologne, April–June 1978 (36, repr.); Fernand Léger, Culturel Centrum, Stad Mechelen, October–December 1979 (79, repr.); Paris-Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, May–November 1981 (392, repr.in colour)
Lit: Roger Garaudy, Pour un Réalisme du XXe Siècle: Dialogue posthume avec Fernand Léger, Paris 1968, p.212; Werner Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York 1976, p.154, repr.p.155 in colour
Repr: The Tate Gallery: Illustrated Biennial Report 1980–82, 1983, p.45 in colour

When this picture, one of Léger's major works on the theme of the circus, was first exhibited at the Salon de Mai in June 1949, the artist provided the following note for the catalogue:

'I work less by reflection than by instinct.

'I pass through periods when my paintings are static. During other periods, I only paint curves; these are my dynamic periods. But in certain of my paintings one can find both the dynamic and the static. In “The acrobat and his partner”, the acrobat and the disc around him represent movement. The flower which he holds in his hand and which is entirely composed of curves reinforces the impression of movement as does the form of the cat on the chair. The straight lines of the chair and those on the same side, near the edge of the canvas, together with the ladder and the acrobat's partner, constitute the static part of the painting which is in violent contrast with the dynamic part. The more contrasts there are in a painting, the stronger the work is. The fewer there are, the more melodious it is: I am anti-melodious.’

The Léger exhibition at the Grand Palais in 1971–2 included a smaller and sketchier oil version of this same theme, also dated 1948, which was probably done as a preliminary study (222 repr., measuring 29 × 35 3/8in.).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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