Fernand Léger's Divers on a Yellow Background (1941)

February 4, 2021

Brush to Canvas

During the emergence of Modernism, artists were trying to be rebels, solely recognized for being the one to break the mold and free themselves from the traditions of the Italian Renaissance. Many artists were not willing to be categorized and labeled in the manners that would ultimately make them famous. French artist Fernand Léger is a prime example of this creative shift from classic techniques to more abstract visual concepts.

Léger's  Divers on a Yellow Background (1941) is a large canvas painting with a focal “orgy” of contoured shapes representing body parts and a flat background of primary-colored “amoebas.” The composition has the versatility of a playing card, and if it wasn’t for the artist’s signature, could be hanging upside-down. Despite the activity of the Technicolor camouflage, the bodies still manage to stay in the forefront. They are given more dimension and detail, including a black outline. The body parts are further assisted by the swathe of yellow that frames the center and gives the horizontally-oriented plane a triptych harmony. 

With Divers, Fernand Léger takes a Cubist-offshoot approach to the subject of a pool full of swimmers. He had been inspired by seeing a few divers in Marseilles just before moving to America, where he saw many more crammed into a single swimming hole. He disparaged Italian Renaissance artists, pointing out their needless attention to painstakingly reproducing the human form and practically painting the life right out of it. He instead wanted to show aggressive motion and the cascading of divers’ limbs suspended in a moment leading up to the actual plunge. In this flurry of action, he couldn’t be bothered with meticulous rendering of the details of fingernails and toenails, like Michelangelo would do. This would be an example of how the Modernism movement was in direct opposition to the technical rendering of the Masters that had classically been regarded as fine art. Leger’s background is in architectural drafting and photograph retouching, and he is influenced by Impressionism, which he accredits with the role of assassinating the classic technique of chiaroscuro. He was in Paris during some of the greatest movements in art, but other than dabbling in Cubism, he preferred to steer clear of other artists and their “solutions.” He drew from his own experiences, such as being a soldier in World War I, visiting industrial exhibitions and seeing the lights on Broadway in the U.S. He simplified the human form to object status for the common people, a direct affront to the cold reasoning of intellectualism. 


Harrison, Charles. Modernism. London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1997. 

Lachner, Carolyn, Fernand Léger, Jodi Hauptman, Matthew Affron and Kristen Erickson. Fernand Léger. New York : Museum of Modern Art, 1998. 

Schmalenbach, Werner. Fernand Léger. New York : Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1976. 

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