Léger was overlooked for a while. The conscious preoccupations of the younger painters in New York during the '40s lay in a different quarter; and so few of his 1910-1913 pictures were known. He was over here during most of the war, and what he showed us then was not impressive. Nor — but let this be said to his credit — did he try to impress us with his personality. Now we have begun to know better. His large retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (where it came from the Chicago Art Institute, which organized it) makes it quite clear that, besides being a major fountainhead of contemporary style, Léger belongs with Matisse, Picasso and Mondrian among the very greatest painters of the century.
The sequence of promise, fulfillment and decline his exhibition revealed was much like that in the previous Matisse, Picasso and Braque retrospectives, and its dates site the chronological contour lines of School of Paris painting over the last forty or fifty years. For Matisse fulfillment came between 1910 and 1920; for Braque, between 1910 and 1914; for both Picasso and Lager between 1910 and 1925. None of the four was ever, before or after these dates, as consistent in quality, and very seldom as high.
Michel Seuphor refers to 1912 as 'perhaps the most beautiful date in the whole history of painting in France'. That year Cubism reached fullest flower, and Léger was one of the three artists mainly responsible, even though he did not paint with 'cubes'. 1913 was another beautiful year, perhaps more so for him if not for Picasso and Braque. In 1914 he had, like Braque, to go to war, and the few paintings he finished while in the army are rather weak. But he recovered his level as soon as he had the chance to work regularly again, and the pictures he did from 1917 until at least 1922 are just as original and perhaps even more seminal. Yet they do not quite come up to the pure, the utter finality, the poised strength of his 1911-1913 work — just as Picasso's art between 1914 and 1925, while manifesting its own kind of perfection, rarely attains the transcendent perfection it knew before. The same is doubly, triply true in Braque's case, though he did experience a partial — very partial — recovery between 1928 and 1931 or 1932.
The four years from the middle of 1910 to the middle of 1914 were the special ones, then. But just what made them so exceptionally favorable to painting? A trio of geniuses, born within a year of one another, were in their early thirties — but Matisse, who was approaching his peak during the same period, was then in his forties. More of the answer may be given by something that extends far beyond the individual circumstances of the artists involved. In France, and elsewhere, the generation of the avant-garde that came of age after 1900 was the first to accept the modern, industrializing world with any enthusiasm. Even poets — thus Apollinaire — saw, at least for a moment, aesthetic possibilities in a streamlined future, a vaulting modernity; and a____________________