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The only child of a livestock breeder, Fernand Léger was born in Normandy in 1881. Brought up by his mother and an uncle after his father's death in 1884, he was an indifferent student, enthusiastic only about gymnastics and drawing. After two years of apprenticeship with an architect in Caen, Léger went to Paris in 1900 to work as a draughtsman and in a photographer's lab.
When he finished his year of military service in 1903, Léger returned to Paris to study at the new Ecole des Arts Décoratifs, while also taking independent classes at the Ecole des Beaux-arts and at the Académie Julian. In 1907, he submitted several paintings to the Salon d'Automne in Paris (where he exhibited regularly until 1922) and was very influenced by the first major retrospective of Cézanne's work at the same Salon. His early paintings were mainly impressionist in style but himself destroyed most of them in 1908 for being "Léger avant Léger".
By 1910, he was part of the network of Parisian avant-garde artists, joining Kahnweiler's stable of artists (along with Braque and Picasso), and showed for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants with the Cubists. Along with several others, Léger was part of the New York Armory Show in 1913, a seminal moment for art in America. These paintings subsequently formed a travelling exhibit of modern art that went to several eastern American cities.
The Great War effectively put his painting career on hold when he was called up in August 1914 as a sapper in the Engineering Corps. Gassed at Verdun in 1917, he quickly took up his brush again. In 1919 at the end of the war, he married Jeanne Lohy a young Norman whom he had met in 1913. From 1926, they lived mostly apart in an "open" marriage until her death in 1950.
An enthusiastic exponent of the beauty and power of machines, his post-war paintings were very "mechanical" with rectilinear, asymmetrical backgrounds. Figures became archetypes, included not for emotional but purely plastic reasons, submitted to the same geometrical order as machines and the urban environment. Friends with the De Stijl artists like Mondrian and van Doesburg, Léger found Neo-Plasticism and Purism to be liberating influences. The 20s were busy years when he became aware of his aptitude for murals, "illuminating walls" as he called them, working with Delaunay and frequently with Le Corbusier. In 1924, he started an independent teaching studio, the Académie Moderne, with Ozenfant and Laurencin, which was subsequently renamed Atelier Fernand Léger after WWII.
Perhaps due in part to this affinity for things mechanical and industrial, by the 30s Léger had developed a substantial following in the States, and visited several times. In 1935, he had a major solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. Léger was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, the ultimate French accolade, in 1939. But in late 1940, he became one of the many émigré artists living in New York, spending his summers on Lake Champlain. Always concerned by the plight of the working man and politicized by the wars, he finally joined the French Communist Party upon his return to Paris in 1945.
An articulate man, Léger taught, wrote and lectured throughout his career, not only to his own students at the Académie Moderne, but also at the Sorbonne and in Belgium, Germany, and the U.S., where he taught at Yale and at Mills College in California during the war. He was interested in all aspects of art, working regularly in theatre design and even in film. Constantly responsive to new challenges, in his later years, he worked with mosaics, ceramics and stained glass.
In 1952, he married Nadia Khodossevitch, a Russian, who had been his student and studio assistant since 1924. In August 1955, Fernand Léger died suddenly of a heart attack on his farm in the French countryside, where he is buried.