De Kooning then told [me] the story of Léger at the Museum of Modern Art looking back and forth at Picasso’s Three Musicians and his own Three Musicians and murmuring “Pauvre Picasso.” —Irving Sandler
With their distant expressions and sense of huddled isolation, the performing trio appearing in Fernand Léger’s The Three Musicians probably wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice to entertain at a party. There is, to be sure, a tradition across the arts of performers as being jubilant on stage, sad in private. Watteau realized the theme in the 18th century with his elegant pictures of Pierrot, Columbine, and Harlequin; today it is global and comes in many variations. (I recently saw a T-shirt reading “Please don’t cry . . . your clown makeup will run.”) Still, and although Léger certainly knew this convention, his performers do not directly engage the viewer’s sympathy.
The Three Musicians is a popular masterpiece. It has been in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art for over half a century, almost always on view there since it was painted, in 1944. It is, then, very familiar. But with its remote performers, it is also a mystery. What is it all about?
Léger is the least recognized of the three founding Cubists—Picasso and Braque being the earlier creators—who developed the movement from 1910 until 1914, when World War I disrupted their lives (Léger and Braque served in the army). A brief postwar period of Cubism, which included Juan Gris, lasted until around 1921.
Léger’s Cubist works present traditional subjects—still life, landscape, the figure—in a virtually abstract vocabulary of cones, cylinders, and cubes. After 1920, the artist reversed this practice, creating far more conventional (realistic) depictions, which were increasingly focused on contemporary themes, ranging from machine ball bearings to skyscrapers. Even in this context, however, The Three Musicians, with its larger-than-life figures, is odd. “It is perhaps something apart,” Léger remarked.
Its dating of “24–44” is also unusual. The theme was invented in drawings made in Paris in 1924 but didn’t reach its grand realization until 1944 in New York, where Léger arrived in 1940, having fled Paris as the German army advanced into France. He brought a suitcase he had packed quickly with some earlier drawings, including sheets on the theme of the three musicians.
Those earlier works have prompted art historians to cite the bals musettes, the Parisian dance halls Léger loved, with their little bands of musicians, as his original source and influence. In Manhattan, too, with his fellow émigré Piet Mondrian, Léger frequented establishments where people danced and listened to the newest music. (Mondrian loved boogie-woogie but unfortunately danced like his compositions, in long straight lines with abrupt 90 degree turns.)
I would like here to consider a different reading of the picture. The entertainers are not musicians from the bals musettes but portraits of Braque, Picasso, and Léger himself. To create these resemblances, Léger used photographs of his colleagues, taken around 1910—that is, from the time of their work as the “Cubist trio.” This means that already in his 1924 drawings Léger’s performers had a recollective aspect, which would be underscored in the portrait references.
The seated figure represents Picasso, identified by his often remarked-upon intense eyes, his hairstyle, and his trademark striped sailor’s sweater. The image surely comes from a photograph of Picasso taken in 1908 but not published until 1910. Not only are the chair legs similar to those in the photograph, but the camera-created large hand is recalled in the hand on the accordion in the painting.
Braque, known as somewhat of a dandy, is represented by the bass player. The painted figure’s bow tie and vest reveal that Léger used a 1910 photograph for this portrait. Interestingly, to fit him into the initial composition, Léger reversed—or flipped—the photographic image (he often used tracing paper); this explains why in the painting Braque’s vest buttons the wrong way.
The third musician is Léger himself. Several pronounced characteristics are present, including Léger’s large physical size (“like a longshoreman,” recalled de Kooning), his bold moustache, and the almost ever-present hat, so emblematic of Léger that Alexander Calder portrayed his friend wearing a fedora in a wire sculpture portrait, from around 1930.
Finally, and rather like the symbolic objects held by saints, the musicians’ instruments also point to their identities. Picasso, who pioneered the first Cubist vocabulary, of angles and quasi-blocks (“cubes”) in shallow up-and-down spaces, plays an accordion with pleats of similar forms. Braque introduced the later Cubist style in his invention of collage, using pasted pieces of flat wood-grained and patterned wallpaper. Here, he plucks a bass that features flat surfaces of wood and decorative elements.
Most of all, it is Léger’s round-form instrument that convinces us of these portraits. In 1911, the Parisian critic Louis Vauxcelles encountered for the first time Léger’s Cubist works, with their cones and cylinders. Always mocking of modernism, Vauxcelles declared that rather than being a “Cubist,” Léger was a “tubist,” the very role he plays here.
The Three Musicians was painted in 1944, the year the war in Europe reached its greatest intensity. During this time, Léger had no news of his two Cubist colleagues—“Pauvre Picasso” and “Pauvre Braque”—who were still in occupied Paris. The Three Musicians is indeed “something apart” from Léger’s other work. It is at once a memory and a hope.
In honor of Theodore Reff and the late William S. Rubin, two great art historians and scholars, with whom, in 1979, I first discussed my identifications.
E. A. Carmean, Jr., is an art historian and a canon in the Episcopal Church. His current projects include In Sacred Places, a study of seven religious projects by major modern American artists.