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 subject in 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.
Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.
Wood, James N., Treasures of 19th-and 20th-Century Painting: The Art Institute of Chicago (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993), 223 (color ill.).
Barter, Judith A., Douglas W. Druick, and Charles F. Stuckey, Masterworks of Modern Art from The Art Institute of Chicago, exh. cat. (Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun, 1994), 108–109, cat. 30 (color ill.).
Wood, James N. and Teri J. Edelstein, The Art Institute of Chicago: Twentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1996), 45 (color ill.).
Ian Kennedy and Julian Treuherz, The Railway: Art in the Age of Steam, exh. cat. (New Haven: Yale University Press; Kansas City, MO: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; Liverpool: Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, 2008), 239, fig. 98 (color ill.) as Level Crossing.
Stephanie D’Alessandro and Renée DeVoe Mertz, The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters from the Art Institute of Chicago, (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2014), 10, 80 (color ill. detail), 81.
Michael Draguet and Michelangelo van Meerten, Track to Modernity, exh. cat. (Brussels: Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium; Brussels: EUROPALIA Arts Festival; Veurne: Hannibal, 2021), 188, cat. 108 (color ill.), 232.
Chicago, Arts Club, Loan Exhibition of Modern Paintings Privately Owned by Chicagoans, Jan. 4–18, 1929, cat. 29, as Abstraction.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Paintings in Paris from American Collections, Jan. 19–Feb. 16, 1930, cat. 47.
Chicago, Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, Exhibition of Modern French Paintings Loaned to the Renaissance Society, July 3–Aug. 18, 1930, cat. 7, as Still Life.
Chicago, Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, Some Modern Primitives: International Exhibition of Paintings and Prints, July 2–Aug. 16, 1931, cat. 39, as Abstraction.
New York, Valentine Gallery, Léger: New Paintings, Apr. 9–May 5, 1945, cat. 19, as Le Passage a Niveau.3
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Fernand Léger, 1976, cat. 5 (ill.), as Study for The Level Crossing; traveled to Adelaide, Art Gallery of South Australia; Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales; and Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria.
Buffalo, NY, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Fernand Léger, Jan. 15–Feb. 28, 1982, pp. 33, 61, 78, cat. 15 (ill.), as Follow the Arrow (Le Passage à niveau); Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Mar. 11–Apr. 18, 1982; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, May 17–June 27, 1982.
Chicago, Arts Club, Portrait of an Era: Rue Winterbotham Carpenter and the Arts Club of Chicago, 1916–1931, Sept. 15–Nov. 1, 1986, cat. 6, as Follow the Arrow (ill.).
New York, Acquavella Galleries, Fernand Léger, Oct. 23–Dec. 12, 1987, cat. 17 (ill.), as Le Passage à Niveau (Follow the Arrow).
Nagaoka, Japan, Niigata Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Masterworks of Modern Art from The Art Institute of Chicago, Apr. 20–May 29, 1994, cat. 30; Nagoya, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, June 10–July 24, 1994; Yokohama Museum of Art, Aug. 6–Sept. 25, 1994
Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum, The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters from the Art Institute of Chicago, Oct. 6, 2013–Feb. 16, 2014, no cat. no.
Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium, Tracks to Modernity, Oct. 10, 2021–Feb. 13, 2022, cat. 108.
Rue Winterbotham Carpenter (Mrs. John Alden Carpenter, died 1931), from the late 1920s [letter from Manuel Gonzalez, Apr. 17, 1975, in curatorial file]; by descent to her daughter, Mrs. Patrick Hill, Charlotte, Vt. [letter from Mrs. Patrick Hill, n.d., in the curatorial file]; given to the Art Institute of Chicago, 1953.
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