Three Women (1921) by Fernand Leger
Interpretation of Neoclassical Figure Painting of Reclining Nudes

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Three Women
("Le Grand Dejeuner")
By Fernand Leger.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921)


Analysis of Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner)
Post-war Classical Revival


Name: Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921)
Artist: Fernand Leger (1881-1955)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Genre painting
Movement: Classical Revival in modern art
Location: MOMA, New York

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of pictures
by modern artists like
Fernand Leger, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.


By the early 1920s, following the success of works like Nudes in the Forest (1909-10), Contrast of Forms (1913), Soldiers Playing at Cards (1917) and The Mechanic (1920), Leger was established - with Picasso (1881-1973), Braque (1882-1963) and others - as one of the leading 20th century painters in Paris and a key contributor to modern art in France. Since at least 1910, his main preoccupation had been abstract art - namely, an individual style of Cubism, nicknamed "Tubism" for its use of cylindrical shapes - but his latest masterpiece (The Mechanic) had signalled a return to classical forms, a trend he continued during the 1920s. But as he did with Cubism, he created his own version of classicism, combining a machine aesthetic with solidity of form which reflected his strong faith in modern industry and his vision that, together, art and the machine age might help to plot a new course for the working people of France.

Analysis of Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) by Fernand Leger

Three Women - one of Leger's best-known pictures - depicts a trio of seated and reclining nudes drinking tea/coffee in a modern apartment. Female nudes were a regular feature in the art of classical antiquity, and later in both neoclassical painting and neoclassical sculpture of the late-18th and early-19th century, so the theme chosen by Leger could not have been more appropriate for a work of Classical Revivalism. Except that the bodies of these particular nudes are represented as rounded and dislocated forms, with skin that is not soft but firm, buffed, and polished. Their machine-like characteristics are consistent both with Leger's desire to eliminate all emotion from the work (in the classical style), and his faith in the utopian and reconstructivist ideals of the 1920s.



This great masterpiece was first exhibited at the Salon d'Automne of 1921. It was bought by Leonce Rosenberg (1879-1947), but he apparently found it too 'severe', and Leger took it back. Himself dissatisfied, Leger reworked it in 1922, painting the seated figure on the right in dark flesh tones over the original grisaille, and making various other small adjustments to the background and furniture, most of them in the direction of greater simplification. It remained unsold until 1925, a source for several of Leger's intervening paintings, including Nudes against a Red Background (1923, Kunstmuseum, Basel).

Three Women ("Le Grand Dejeuner") is Leger's equivalent to Seurat's Sunday Afternoon at the Island of the Grande-Jatte (1884-6, Art Institute of Chicago), for it was prepared meticulously over a two-year period, while simultaneously he worked on other related but distinct compositions with one or two nude figures. A drawing dated 1920 (Kroller-Muller State Museum, Otterlo) shows the whole composition more or less as it would appear in the definitive painting, and there are two considerably smaller oil versions, both known as "Le Petit Dejeuner". There are also separate drawings and oils of the tea-drinker on the right and of the two women on the left, all of them dated 1921. The care with which Leger prepared the huge painting shows that he thought of it as a 'masterpiece' and that he intended it to be a modern Salon 'machine'. Consistent with this intention was his decision to exhibit it for the first time in a Salon, rather than a dealer's gallery.

In letters to Alfred Barr written in 1942 and 1943 - Barr had just purchased the painting for the Museum of Modern Art - Leger described Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) as 'classical', and stressed both the universality of the subject matter and the absence of emotion. Leger's sources for the picture are indeed located in the classical tradition of French painting, and he himself hints at where we should look in the 'Letter', dated 1922, which he published in the Bulletin de l'Effort Moderne in April 1924. There he names as his 'artistic sources' Renoir (1841-1919), Georges Seurat (1859-91), J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) and Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), and indeed Le Grand Dejeuner could readily be compared to Renoir's "Large Bathers" (Musee d'Orsay, Paris), Seurat's "The Models" (Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania), Ingres's "Turkish Bath" (Louvre) and David's "Portrait of Madame Recamier" (Louvre).

Other artists he mentions in the same text are Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), the Le Nain brothers (17th century), Cezanne (1839-1906), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Jean Fouquet (1420-81) - and again, iconographic, compositional or stylistic parallels could be drawn with specific works, such as Delacroix's "Women of Algiers" (Louvre), Le Nain's "Family of Peasants in an Interior" (Louvre), Cezanne's late Bather compositions, Poussin's "Eleazer and Rebecca at the Well" (Louvre), and Fouquet's "Madonna and Child with Angels" (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp). He does not mention Edouard Manet (1832-83), but "Olympia" and "Dejeuner sur l'herbe" (both Musee d'Orsay) are among the most obvious precedents for the painting.

Over and above any specific debt to the past, however, Le Grand Dejeuner is intended to be a truly humanistic work - an ideal, symbolic image of universal peace, harmony and beauty, expressing Leger's hopes for the betterment of mankind and belief in the civilising mission of art. In this respect it must be seen in the context of the more modest 'animated landscapes' he was painting at exactly the same period, which have a similar Utopian message.

Yet everything about the painting is resolutely modern while at the same time being classical and timeless. The odalisques drink their tea and read their books in a room decorated in the hygienic post-war style that was advocated by Le Corbusier (1887-1965); they look as if they have been assembled by a machine from off-the-peg, standardised parts. We recognise the debt to the flat colours and geometry of synthetic Cubism, and - in its colour palette and line - we sense the relationship to the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) - the inventor of Neoplasticism - who was then living in Paris. The painting also reveals the artist's sympathies with the Purist ideals of Amedee Ozenfant (1886-1966) and others, who themselves called for a revival of classical aesthetics as a symbol of renewed social harmony. Where Picasso sometimes pretends to be an ancient artist and renounces the outward garb of modernist styles, Leger does not. He refuses to mythologise, and there is none of Picasso's poignant and uneasy nostalgia. It was this absence of moral doubt that made critics such as Waldemar George speak of Leger's art as 'healthy' and 'cleansing' (Fernand Leger, Paris, 1929). See also Leger's late classical work Two Sisters (1935, Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin).

Post-war Classical Revival

The classical 'Call to Order' which spread rapidly across France and Italy after the Armistice, reflected a deeply-felt need to reconnect with the timeless ideals of antiquity, following the unspeakable horrors of the First World War.

Seen as a counterweight to the nihilism of Dada, the call was heeded by a wide variety of artists during the early 1920s, as they retreated from their more extremist pre-war experiments with form, space, and subject matter, and followed the classicist trend. Leger's fellow-Cubist Picasso was one such painter. The best-known neoclassical paintings by Picasso include: Two Nudes (1906); Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920); Large Bather (1921); Woman in White (1923); and Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922).

For a further contrast, see the modernistic classical motifs used by Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico in works like The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914, Private Collection), The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913, Tate Collection, London), and Song of Love (1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York).


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