After Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger was the dominant French painter of the 20th century. For many years the National Gallery of Art had only two relatively minor paintings by the artist (both Chester Dale Collection, given in 1963). This changed with the 1991 gift of Two Women, 1922, from Richard S. Zeisler and the 2008 gift of Animated Landscape, 1921; both paintings date from one of the high points of Léger's career.
Animated Landscape makes a fascinating comparison with Two Women. In both paintings, Léger put two figures in a dense architectonic setting, but in Animated Landscape the figures are men, not women, and the setting is a suburban landscape, not a sophisticated interior. Still, Léger's ambition in both works was to take the new, mechanized image of the body that grew from his harrowing wartime experience (the shiny tubular limbs derived, he said, from "the barrel of my gun") and place it harmoniously in architecture and nature. Léger's fusion of art-historical sources is just as ambitious: we see Picasso's cubism (in the treatment of the figures), Henri Rousseau's primitivism (in the tree trunks), and Mondrian's neo-plasticism (in the black rectilinear structure and use of primary colors). All of these elements circulate around the unlikely central figure of a placid bull—a welcome note of humor in a dense and challenging picture, an enigmatic semi-urban pastoral.
Other paintings from the early 1920s with the same title and a similar cast of characters indicate that the Gallery's work forms part of a small but important series. It is the first version of a painting (also 1921) in a Montreal collection, but is smaller and more summary—lacking details such as knots in the trees and an eye for the bull, and thus placing more emphasis on form and structure. The sign at right, which looks like a Roman numeral in the earlier picture, is legible as vins (wines) in the later one.
Animated Landscape was purchased by Sidney Janis around 1950 and was among the works he donated to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1967. Some years later Janis bought it back, and the painting remained with the family until it was given to the Gallery in 2008.