Three Women offers a machine-age update to a time-honored subject in the history of painting: the group portrait of female nudes in repose. In this monumental canvas, a self-possessed trio, flanked by a black dog, luxuriates around a coffee table in a chic, modern apartment. Their bodies consist of clusters of spheres and sharply contoured forms precisely shaded so that their silver and ocher skin as well as their slick, sideswept hair gleam like sheet metal. The features of these anonymous, impassive women, who gaze unflinchingly at the viewer, appear interchangeable, like mass-produced machine parts. The concatenation of bodies offsets a lushly vibrant domestic interior filled with brightly colored decor, stylized furniture, and an acutely slanted, dazzlingly patterned floor. The gridded background of interlocking angles and curvilinear forms gives the painting a shallow, mural-like appearance.
Léger had emerged from his experience as a combat engineer in the French army during World War I with a strong conviction in the beauty of modern machinery. The machinelike precision with which the figures in Three Women are rendered, and their seamless integration with their setting, reflects Léger’s singular vision of a harmonious reconciliation between man and machine in the modern era.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)