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The Railway Crossing (Sketch)

A work made of oil on canvas.
© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

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  • A work made of oil on canvas.




Fernand Léger
French, 1881–1955

About this artwork

Fernand Léger first saw the work of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso at the Paris gallery of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Around 1909 Léger began to paint in a Cubist style, although his compositions in this mode are more colorful and curvilinear than works by Braque and Picasso of the same period, with their angular forms and subdued tones. An artist with far-ranging interests and talents, Léger later became a designer for theater, opera, and ballet, as well as a book illustrator, filmmaker, muralist, ceramist, and teacher.
Typically, Léger would develop a major composition by preparing studies in a variety of media. The Railway Crossing is an oil study for The Level Crossing (1919; private collection, Basel, Switzerland). When he took up this subjectin 1919, he made a number of drawings and oil sketches, including the present work. Like many of his contemporaries, Léger was fascinated by the machine age. He maintained that machines and industrial objects were as important to his art as figures. References to such elements pervade The Railway Crossing. In the midst of a complex scaffolding of cylinders and beams, an arrow appears on a brightly outlined signboard. A network of solid volumes and flat forms seems to circulate within the shallow space, just as pistons move within a motor. The precise definition of his forms and the brilliance of his palette express Léger’s belief that the machine, along with the age it created, was one of the triumphs of modern civilization.

— Entry, Master Paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago, 2013, p. 118.

Like Robert Delaunay’sChamps de Mars: The Red Tower of 1911, Fernand Léger’s The Railway Crossing (Preliminary Version) is a paean to modernity, its dynamism, energy, and movement. Unlike Delaunay’s earlier work, however, this painting contains no specifically recognizable objects, except the directional sign with the arrow. Rather than a representation of a rail-road crossing, Léger created a new kind of visual poetry from the fragments, colors, and shapes of his environment, evoking the rich sensations elicited by modern industrialized life. Tubular beams appear to intersect the surface, evoking both the pistons of a machine and the open, metal structures used in modern construction. Other forms, such as the circular, target-like shape on the left, the stripes that proliferate throughout the painting, and most obviously the directional sign with the arrow, seem to have been inspired by the colorful, simplified geometry of road signs or the loud, attention-getting designs of billboards and posters. In this respect, Léger prefigured the later fascination of Pop artists with these elements of modern life. The railroad crossing, a subject epitomizing the noisy mechanical world that Léger loved, had first been painted by the artist as early as 1912. In 1919, he resumed portraying this subject, making a number of drawings and oil sketches, including our own, in preparation for a much larger, finished painting. The Art Institute version already contains the major compositional elements found in the final work. There is, however, one dramatic difference: for the final painting, Léger decided to turn the entire composition upside down, in what amounts to a declaration of the painting’s complete autonomy from representation.

—Entry, Margherita Andreotti, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, The Joseph Winterbotham Collection at The Art Institute of Chicago (1994), p. 156-157.

Currently Off View

Modern Art


Fernand Léger


The Railway Crossing (Sketch)






Oil on canvas


Signed, l.r.: "F. LEGER" Signed, dated, and inscribed on verso. u.l.: "LE PASSAGE A NIVEAU/ESQUISSE/F LEGER—/19"


21 5/16 × 25 7/8 in. (54.1 × 65.7 cm)

Credit Line

Joseph Winterbotham Collection; gift of Mrs. Patrick Hill in memory of Rue Winterbotham Carpenter

Reference Number



© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Extended information about this artwork

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