Fernand Léger - Living the Avant-Garde: The Triton Collection Foundation, Evening Sale Part I New York Tuesday, November 14, 2023 | Phillips
  • “I wanted to arrive at self-isolating tones, a very red red, a very blue blue. […] directly to the straightforwardness of color and volume, the contrast.”
    —Fernand Léger

    Lively and utterly absorbing, its joyous blend of bold colors and confidently realized forms deftly capturing the jubilance of the festival day that it commemorates, Fernand Léger’s Le 14 juillet is a work of remarkable significance, both within the contexts of the artist’s oeuvre, and as a record of his profound contribution to the development of Cubism in these pivotal years. Executed between 1912 and 1913, it crystalizes Léger’s unique application of Cubist principles in his own pictorial idiom, and epitomizes his celebrated Contrastes de formes series, examples of which are now almost all housed in prestigious institutional collections across the world. Remarkably, this work includes a second painting on the verso, an earlier work, long believed to have been lost, that further emphasizes the consistency of Léger’s vision. Representing a major art historical discovery, the identification of the hidden work as belonging to Léger’s Fumées sur les toits series—of which only seven other examples are known—not only illuminates the pictorial problems that the artist was working through across these two cycles of work, but reinforces the important conceptual and stylistic connections between the two.  


    First gifted by the artist to his close friend Marc Duchène on the occasion of his wedding, Le 14 juillet remained in the family’s collection for generations. Following Duchène’s premature death in service during the First World War, the work was removed from display in the family’s home. Writing to Louis Poughon on the 3rd of November, 1914 that the news of Duchène’s death had “broken my legs,” Léger powerfully expressed the depth of this personal loss, and of its resonance on a more collective level during this tumultuous period.i Acquired by the Triton Collection Foundation in 1999, Le 14 juillet; Untitled from the series Fumées sur les toits represents a Cubist jewel in this illustrious collection and formed the focus of a major presentation of the Fumées sur les toits series in the 2022 exhibition, Fernand Léger and the Rooftops of Paris, hosted by the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.


    Bastille Day celebrations at Place de la Concorde, July 14, 1919. Image: Bridgeman Images


    Cubism: New Directions


    “Considering that a picture must be, in the material sense, the contrast to a wall on which it is placed, it must express movement and life in all its ebullience.”
    —Fernand Léger


    Responding to the speed of technological change and the dynamism of the modern, urban metropolis in the early decades of the 20th century, radical new modes of representation began to take shape in the compositional experiments undertaken by the artists of the avant-garde. Of these, no other movement captures the birth of modernism in Europe more completely than Cubism, which revolutionized the question of how to represent observable reality on a two-dimensional picture surface. Doing away with a centuries-long tradition of using linear perspective to create the illusion of depth, Cubism instead fractured the painted subject and the space around it, breaking pictorial plane into distinct facets as it combined multiple viewpoints into a single, simultaneous, comprehension of the three-dimensional whole in space.


    Robert Delaunay, La tour rouge, 1911. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Image: Mondadori Portfolio / Bridgeman Images

    Although pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in its earliest phases, Cubism found a novel vision in Léger, who combined its pictorial lessons with those of the Italian Futurists, and Paris-based Orphist painters, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, to reintroduce color and the stirring spirit of the modern city into his compositions. Hugely influenced by Paul Cézanne’s experimental treatment of volume, and what he described as the artist’s “sensitivity to the contrasts of forms,” which he saw firsthand at a major 1907 retrospective, Léger began to adopt a similar, structural approach to his brushwork, building up his compositions in rounded, sculptural blocks.ii


    Fumées sur les toits


    “Here you are, beautiful tones, light colors and you too; bubbling shapes; the pleasing plumes of smoke are the sign of civilization.”
    —Guillaume Apollinaire


    Like Delaunay, Léger turned to the modern city as a source of inspiration, surveying the changing skyline from his windows and capturing the dynamic interaction of its solid and more ephemeral elements. It was this investigation that would form the conceptual basis for his pivotal Fumées sur les toits series, enthusiastically evoked in poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1913 Les peintres cubistes: Méditations esthétiques as the very sign of urban modernity itself. Looking out over the rooftops from his new studio at 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comédie to Notre-Dame beyond, Léger applied his singular vision to the rendering of these surroundings and the perceptual experiences that they generated, contrasting rounded, billowing columns of smoke with the more angular, tessellated patterns of glass windows and zinc roof panels that spread out before him.


    View from Léger’s studio window, 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, Paris.

    Fundamentally constructive where Cubism tends towards a more deconstructive approach, these experiments would directly inform Léger’s notion of the “law of plastic contrasts”— the principle to which all his subsequent work would remain anchored to. As the artist explained in 1923: “I apply the law of plastic contrasts, which, I think, has never been applied to this day. I group them according to contrary hues, flat surfaces juxtaposed with shaped surfaces, figures composed of volumes juxtaposed with the flat façades of houses, plumes of smoke in shaped masses juxtaposed with lively architectural surfaces, pure flat tones juxtaposed with modelled grey tones or the other way around.”iii


    As Léger highlighted, color would come to play as important a role as form in establishing these contrasts, an evolution that becomes quickly apparent when looking across the compositions related to the series that the artist executed between 1911 and 1912. Moving from the more muted palette dominated by softer grey and ochre tones employed in the earliest canvases, Léger introduced bolder color contrasts, creating spatial divisions and introducing a more dynamic sense of movement within his compositions. Especially evident in the present work where angular black planes react against softer passages of white and grey, Léger constructed a sense of pictorial space which was further complicated by sharp juxtapositions of bold red, blue, and orange tones. What was once still recognizable as the exaggerated ziggurat line of windows nestled in the eaves of the buildings towards the left edge of the painting when compared directly with another 1912 iteration is here reconfigured into a solid blue rectangular form.


    Fernand Léger, Fumées sur les toits

  • Apollinaire was not alone in recognizing the significance of this series, with fellow “Salon Cubists” Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger devoting space to the series in their 1912 Du “Cubisme”. Similarly, Kahnweiler’s 1920 Der Weg zum Kubismus would locate Léger’s paintings as an important touchstone in the evolution of Cubism, providing the foundations for the later accounts of modern art by the likes of Douglas Cooper and John Golding. A pivotal painting within this series, the present work exemplifies Léger’s ability to “manipulate space not only by the use of curving smoke and angular lines but by the juxtaposition of pure color,” anticipating the shift towards abstraction taken by the final works in the series that would be more fully realized in the Contrastes de formes.iv


    Le 14 juillet: Towards a law of Plastic Contrasts


    “If pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has required it. […] The compression of a modern painting, its variety, its decomposition of forms, are the result of all this.”
    —Fernand Léger
    Art historian and critic Michel Seuphor famously marked 1912 as “perhaps the most beautiful date in the whole history of painting in France,” and Léger’s contribution to this becomes especially clear when we appreciate the radical pictorial experiments that he was working through in the present work.v Moving even further into the more abstract mode that would come to characterize the Contrastes de formes, Le 14 juillet nevertheless reasserts the formative early influence of Impressionism on Léger’s distinctive Cubistic idiom. While he shared a deep appreciation for Cézanne with Braque and Picasso and had ultimately shed the Impressionistic techniques and overall harmonies that characterized his earliest forays into painting, the quiet persistence of select stylistic aspects of their project helps to contextualize his points of departure from the Analytical Cubism then at its height. 

    In this respect, Le 14 juillet is a work of singular importance, illuminating the extent to which, while pushing the radical experimentalism of the Fumées sur les toits forward, Léger retained important lessons in pictorial rhythm, luminosity, and the oscillation between solid and more ephemeral elements that he would apply in a uniquely constructive approach to form. Léger’s commitment in these years to forging a visual language that accurately captured the dynamism of urban modernity forged fascinating and unexpected thematic dialogues with Claude Monet’s scenes of a rapidly industrializing Paris, and Gustave Caillebotte’s documentation of the interaction between the city’s architecture and modern life. While Analytical Cubism was dominated by close attention to individual or arranged objects in a palette deliberately limited to darker, earthy tones, Léger’s move towards bright, bold color contrasts again carried resonances of Impressionism’s innovative approach to pure color.   


    [Left] Claude Monet, La Rue Montorgueil à Paris. Fête du 30 juin 1878, 1878. Musee d’Orsay, Paris. Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY 
    [Right] Fernand Léger, Contrastes de formes, 1913. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Artwork: © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 

    Monet had famously turned to a very similar subject in 1878; his riotous La Rue Montorgueil à Paris. Fête du 30 juin 1878 and its associated sister paintings capture the busy urban scene, with buildings lined with waving flags in a flurry of small, rapid brushstrokes. Recreating the animation of the crowd and the movement of the flags in the breeze, Monet’s Impressionistic technique clearly differs from that adopted by Léger here, although it is significant that both found something uniquely modern in these scenes of national celebration as glimpsed from the windows above the street.


    Working from an absorbent ground, Léger built up his forms in a more restrictive palette. The dominant tones of red, white, blue, and green suggested by the Bastille Day scene mark a breakthrough in his attempt to structure pictorial space through the contrast of plastic form. Using a confident, black line, Léger set out the structure and shapes of his composition, establishing the pictorial rhythms and sense of linear movement that would animate the work; but it was only with the introduction of color that these volumetric forms sprang into vibrant life. All compositional elements of line, form, and color are activated and set into dynamic interaction with one another here. This is offset by Léger’s subtle tonal gradations and his combination of zinc and lead whites, which create a more luminous effect.


    Already in Le 14 juillet we can see the shifting, stacked forms that characterize the Contrastes de formes, a series which Léger continues after completing the present work. Alongside two sister works, now held in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Le 14 juillet provides a remarkable document of the brief moment before Léger fully committed to the radical abstraction realized in the Contrastes de formes. Retaining details from the observable landscape such as the rounded forms of the trees and the bold tricolor design in the process of being translated into representative volumetric forms, the work illuminates a vital stage in the evolution of the Fumées sur les toits, whose “large shapes wheeling among the clouds” Douglas Cooper and Gary Tinterow accurately identified as “non-representational forms inserted by Léger to contrast with the scene depicted beneath.” Drawing direct conceptual connections between the experiments of the Fumées sur les toits and this later, hugely influential body of work, they continued: “These [non-representational forms] become more assertive in later works in the series, and two years later Léger made their inclusion a major preoccupation. What once had been a ‘battle of volumes’ thus yielded to the initial formulations of Léger's theory of contrasts, which dominated his painting until it was interrupted by the declaration of war in August 1914.”vi Looking closely at the direct dialogue established between Le 14 juillet and Untitled from the series Fumées sur les toits in the present work, we can clearly chart how Léger refined and reduced his formal vocabulary in these crucial months, exemplifying the artist’s own frequent discussion of the construction of plastic values in painting, and the role of contrasting forms in this realization.



    i Fernand Léger, quoted in Sjraar van Heugten and Gwendolyn Boevé Jones, Fernand Léger and The Rooftops of Paris, exh. cat., Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, 2022, p. 14.

    ii Léger, quoted in Fernand Léger, exh. cat., Aquavella Galleries, New York, 1987, p. 10.

    iii Léger, “A propos de l’élément méchanique,” in Léger, Fonctions de la peinture, Paris, 1963, pp. 50-52.

    iv Katherine Kuh, Léger, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1953, p. 16.

    v Michel Seuphor, quoted in Clement Greenburg, “Master Léger,” in Partisan Review, vol. XXI, Jan.-Feb., 1954, p. 90.

    vi Douglas Cooper and Gary Tinterow, The Essential Cubism: Picasso, Braque & Their Friends, 1907-1920, exh. cat., Tate, London, 1983, p. 204.

    • Description

      Please see main sale page for guarantee notice https://www.phillips.com/auctions/auction/NY011123

    • Provenance

      Marc Duchène, Paris (gifted by the artist circa 1912-1913)
      Private Collection, Paris (by descent from the above)
      Reid & Lefèvre Fine Art, London (acquired from the above circa 1995)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1999

    • Exhibited

      The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Kubisme Uit de Collectie van de Triton Foundation, March 27–July 2, 2006, p. 20 (illustrated on the cover; illustrated, p. 20)
      Madrid, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, ¡1914! La Vanguardia y la Gran Guerra, October 7, 2008–January 11, 2009, no. 5, p. 14 (illustrated)
      The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Parijs Stad van de moderne kunst 1900-1960, October 15, 2011–January 29, 2012, p. 62 (illustrated)
      Rotterdam, Kunsthal, Avant-gardes 1870 to the present. The Collection of the Triton Foundation, October 7, 2012–January 20, 2013, pp. 282-283, 551 (illustrated, pp. 282-283)
      The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Mondriaan en het kubisme Parijs 1912-1914, January 25–May 11, 2014, p. 46 (illustrated)
      Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum, Fernand Léger and the rooftops of Paris, November 19, 2022–April 2, 2023 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Georges Bauquier, Irus Hansma and Claude Lefebvre du Prey, Fernand Léger: Catalogue raisonné de l’ œuvre peint 1954-1955. Supplément et corrections des volumes précédents, Paris, 2013, no. 1645, pp. 94-95, 208 (illustrated, pp. 94-95)
      “Un tableau longtemps perdu de Fernand Léger découvert au dos d'une toile,” Le Figaro, October 9, 2022, online (illustrated)
      Jade Pillaudin, “Un Fernand Léger découvert dans une collection privée,” Le Quotidien de L’Art, No. 2468, October 9, 2022, online (illustrated)
      Laurence Mouillefarine, “L'incroyable histoire d’un tableau inédit de Fernand Léger,” Architectural Digest, November 23, 2022, online (illustrated)
      Virginie Chuimer-Layen, “Un Fernand Léger inédit exposé aux Pays-Bas,” La Gazette Drouot, January 24, 2023, online (illustrated)



Le 14 juillet

signed "F LEGER" lower right
oil on canvas, double-sided
23 5/8 x 17 7/8 in. (60 x 45.7 cm)
Painted circa 1912-1913, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by the Comité Léger.

This work features a recently-discovered artwork on the verso, from the series Fumées sur les toits, painted circa 1911-1912.

Full Cataloguing

$15,000,000 - 20,000,000 

Sold for $17,625,000

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Sale
+1 212 940 1206

Living the Avant-Garde: The Triton Collection Foundation, Evening Sale Part I

New York Auction 14 November 2023