Trapeze artists was commissioned by Douglas Cooper, the well-known historian of Cubism and collector of the works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger. Cooper commissioned the painting specifically for the stairwell of his house, the Château de Castille at Argilliers, Gard, in the south of France. In correspondence with the Gallery, Cooper related the circumstances of the commission:
I bought the Château de Castille about one mile from the Pont du Gard and some fifteen miles from Nîmes in 1950. It was an old chateau, which had been internally rearranged at the end of the eighteenth century and had been left neglected since the mid-1930's. I therefore had a great deal of restoration [to do] in order to make it habitable. A rather splendid, broad staircase went from the ground floor to the second floor, and at the first floor landing, which was rather narrow, there was a tall bare wall which called for some special treatment. Fernand Léger, an old friend of mine and several of whose paintings and drawings I owned, was my first house-guest. I showed him this wall and suggested that, as he was always looking for large dreary wall surfaces to 'destroy' (his own word) with a colourful painting, here was a splendid opportunity. Léger welcomed the opportunity and we discussed possible subject-matter. I showed him a large lithograph with a group of trapezists which appeared in a book he had recently published called Le Cirque and said I thought this would be an excellent solution.1 Léger agreed, and then I asked him to add some of his favourite birds-parrots and doves. But after examining the wall on which the painting was to be executed, we discovered that its surface was not only uneven but also full of cracks. So we decided that the painting would have to be done on a specially cut and shaped canvas would cover the whole wall.
Léger finished the painting at Gif-sur-Yvette, where he lived, in late July 1954, and the painting was installed in my stairwell in September. With its brilliant colours and simulated movement it looked marvellous; the dead and limiting area of the wall became animated and entered into the surrounding space. I was very attracted to this painting which I always regarded as a major achievement.2
Because of the size of the painting it was carried out in a garage adjacent to Léger's studio at Gif-sur-Yvette.3 Having developed a gouache study for the painting from the Cirque print, it seems likely, as has been stated by John Richardson (who was living at the Château de Castille at the time) that Léger was prepared to oversee the execution of the huge painting 'largely by assistants'.4 He frequently employed assistants in his later years to cope with the numerous commissions for large-scale public works.
In 1964 Douglas Cooper decided to sand-blast the walls of the Château de Castille to remove the plaster and reveal the original stonework. In this operation the painting received a small tear in the canvas and in the process of repairing the damage Cooper had the painting backed on a plywood panel. This caused a problem when he sold the Château in 1976 and tried to remove the painting from the stairwell. 'It proved too big (on a panel) to get down the stairs and out of the house', Cooper wrote. 'So in order to get it loose it had to be specially sawn by my restorer. After that, he unstuck it from the 3 ply panel-now in two parts-and joined it up by re-lining on another canvas',5 hence the seam which runs vertically down the painting, slightly to the right of centre.
The Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot, has issued a limited edition of tapestries based on the Trapeze artists, though at 2.94 x 2.80 metres, they are considerably smaller than the original painting.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.270.
- Cirque was commissioned by E. Tériade and published by Les Editions Verve, Paris, 1950. The lithograph referred to occupied a double page, pp.52-3.
- Douglas Cooper, correspondence with the Gallery, 24 March 1983.
- John Richardson, Au Château des Cubistes', L'Oeil, no. 4, 15 April 1955, p.20.
- John Richardson, 'Remembering Douglas Cooper', New York Review of Books, 25 April 1985, p.24.
- Douglas Cooper, correspondence with the Gallery, 19 January 1981
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010