Man with a Cane, 1920
Fernand Léger, French, 1881–1955
Oil on canvas
36 1/4 × 25 1/2 in. (92.1 × 64.8 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Writing First Person Narratives
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Explore and compare the relationship of people and machines.
• Write a first-person narrative about a part-human part-machine creature.
• Construct a creature that is part human and part machine.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Pronounce the artist’s name: Lay – zhay’
Man with a Cane is a fragmented view of a figure in a modern interior. The image of a dapper man is evoked by the green head, the rounded gray shoulder; and the red-sleeved arm on the left holding a ball-headed cane. The more abstract passages surrounding the figure suggest an impersonal, architectural environment made up of industrial components. Bright, rich color animates the composition in brilliant syncopation, echoing the new rhythms of the jazz age or Roaring Twinties.
Léger’s Man with a Cane shows both his Cubist style and his interest in machines. Léger takes the figure of a man and the space in which he stands and breaks them down into geometric shapes. The artist then reassembles these forms into a tightly interlocking composition that appears flat, not three-dimensional. Note how Léger both balances and enlivens the composition through carefully placed, brightly colored shapes. His image of a man with a cane presents a new vision of man as firmly placed in a modern, mechanized, urban environment.
Fernand Léger was born on a farm in Normandy in 1881. In 1900 he moved to Paris, where he later studied art as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and worked as an architectural draftsman. He met Picasso and Braque around 1910, but worked independently, introducing vibrant colors and rounded forms into his lively compositions.
Léger’s experience as a soldier at the front in World War I renewed his sympathy for the working class, and also awakened his interest in machines as the primary symbol of the modern age. He said:
It was in a regiment of the Engineer Corps during the War, among rough and worn human beings, that I discovered man. While I lived there, surrounded by machinery, I felt growing in me an appreciation for the mechanical and dynamic side of modern life….1
Léger sought to create art that was accessible to people from all walks of life. In combining a Cubist style with elements from the industrial world, Léger created a dynamic, modern style of painting.
Fernand Léger, “Maitres actuels et peintres de demain,” Arts (Paris: 1935), translated from the French in Fernand Léger, The Figure (New York: 1965).
What colors stand out to you in this painting? How would you describe the colors in this painting? What mood do they convey?
What is the effect of the gray tones and the black and white? Notice how these tones are positioned on the picture plane.
What different shapes can you distinguish? Do you recognize some representational elements in this painting?
Do you see mainly flatness, or is there also depth? Which forms and patterns create three-dimensionality? What other tools does the artist use to create perspective?
The title of this work is Man with a Cane. Can you detect shapes that correspond to parts of the body?
How has the artist changed the body of the ‘man with a cane’ using geometric shapes? Do the individual body parts make up a whole figure?
Man with a Cane is a fragmented view of a figure. The image of a man is evoked by the green head, the rounded gray shoulder and the red-sleeved arm on the left holding a ball-headed cane. But there seems to be multiple men and canes. What could the fragmented approach tell us about the artist’s world view?
How would the figure look if it was less fragmented, more whole? Can you think of other examples of artworks that break down the figure into abstracted shapes? The image of the man reflects the artist’s interest in the modern age and the machine.
The more abstract passages surrounding the figure suggest an impersonal, architectural environment made up of industrial components. Do you think the artist was excited about his age and surroundings? Why? What might the color palette tell you?
Bright, rich color animates the composition and echoes the new rhythms of the jazz age or Roaring Twenties. What other compositional elements point at dynamic movement?
Léger’s experience as a soldier on the front in World War I renewed his sympathy for the working class. He said: “It was in a regiment of the Engineer Corps during the War, among rough and worn human beings, that I discovered man. While I lived there, surrounded by machinery, I felt growing in me an appreciation for the mechanical and dynamic side of modern life…” Do you think that art should be accessible to people from all walks of life? Do you find this work easily accessible or is it closely intertwined with its own time? Do we appreciate different elements depending on the context and time in which we view art?
Connecting to the Classroom
• Discuss Man with a Cane, noting characteristics that resemble machines. List these on the board (black lines, tubular forms, smooth-edged shapes, geometric forms.)
• Look for the representation of the man in the picture. What shapes and colors has Leger used to make the man and the setting look more machine-like? Imagine and discuss how the man would move and talk.
• Study Man with a Cane. Find the man and name the features that help identify him. In what ways does he look like a person? Like a machine? How has Léger used shapes to depict the man and to suggest machines?
• Have students discuss Léger’s attitude toward machines and their relationship to people. Are they good? Bad? Helpful? Dangerous? What in the painting supports each student’s point of view?
• Discuss and list the qualities that are specific to machines. Compare to human features and functions. Create a Venn diagram.
• Have students write first-person narratives about a creature that is part human and part machine. Include a description of the creature and invent dialogue spoken by the creature.
• Use boxes to construct sculptures of the creature. (see Art Lesson: Writing Stories: Box Sculpture) Compare the sculptures with Man with a Cane.
Subject Matter Connection
A student who is accomplished in language arts needs to feel liberated to express himself or herself freely. Much of literature analysis is a “gray area” open to various interpretations; what matters is that students have the ability to overcome the fear of that ambiguity and the fear of failure so that they can critically evaluate works of literature in depth.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.