Jean Metzinger was among the most important painters and theoreticians of the Cubist movement. In addition to being an influential painter who created an immense body of work, Metzinger, through his involvement with the first Cubist treatises and exhibitions, helped to frame the terms in which all Cubist work would be evaluated and discussed.
Painted in 1926, La Roulette shows Metzinger’s development from strict cubism towards a Purist esthetic. Unlike the earlier forms of Cubism, during the 1920s, Metzinger shifted his focus to modern, somewhat realistic subjects painted in a meticulous, abstracted style. The present composition depicts various household items: a teapot, egg server, fishbowl, potted plant, and banjo, positioned upon a tabletop around a roulette wheel. Through an opening in the background lie the rounded shapes of a landscape and flat planes of a house. While most of the composition is painted in smooth, volumetric forms of bright color, the roulette wheel is positioned at center, upon the flat, black plane of its base. The quotidian items, painted in a decorative style, take on metaphysical significance when positioned around its dark shape, suggesting the randomness of fate and role of chance in life. Although the work is stylistically similar to the work of Ferdinand Léger, such allegorical themes made Metzinger unique among his contemporaries.
This “Purist” formal approach dominated Metzinger’s work of the 1920s. The end of the First World War encouraged a revival of classical themes and a traditional approach to painting across Europe: this was the period of Picasso’s bathers and the abstracted nude allegorical figures of Aristide Maillol. Metzinger responded to this “Call to Order” esthetic by painting in an increasingly realistic style. He saw no contradiction between this increasing realism in his approach and the formal purity of his earlier Cubism: in a December 1924 article in Bulletin de l’Effort Moderne he wrote:
It is now possible to go to the extreme limits of realism without falsifying the initial harmony…. In Cubism, which is now in evolution, our attention will be less concerned with the exterior object, and the model, than with the ensemble of forms and colors which constitute a painting…. The difference which separates this sort of painting from classical painting is however much less than would appear. All true artists always attempt to construct an interior and classic vision which is based on an exclusively classic order.
As Metzinger expressed in the above quote, his response to the post-war traditionalism in European art was purely formal: unlike many of his contemporaries who turned to classical themes, he continued to paint thoroughly modern subjects, such as La Roulette.