Painters from Seurat to Matisse were drawn to the circus – not just for its drama and colour, but for the melancholy and alienation it could also represent, writes Alastair Sooke.

In 1888, a radical young painter called Georges Seurat submitted an imposing canvas to the fourth Salon des Indepéndants, an annual exhibition in the French capital showcasing revolutionary art. It was a nocturnal scene, depicting a troupe of musicians attempting to entice passers-by to roll up, roll up, and buy tickets for a travelling circus.

In the middle, on a pedestal, beneath a row of gas jets that illuminate the scene, a trombonist wearing conical headgear plays his instrument, supported by four ragtag musicians in bowler hats. To the right, beside a buffoonish entertainer with a slicked-up quiff, a haughty ringmaster, with a puffed-out chest and impressive moustache, surveys the action. Beneath them, members of the public, seen in silhouette, watch the show.

Seurat probably encountered a scene just like this in the spring of 1887, when the travelling Corvi Circus set up at the Gingerbread Fair held annually on the outskirts of Paris. Strangely, though, given the raucous nature of his subject, with loud music and a crowd of jostling onlookers, Seurat imbued the finished painting with a restrained, stately air. More than a century after it was created, Circus Sideshow (1887-88) remains a haunting and mysterious work of art.

Before the advent of cinema, the circus was one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment

 A new exhibition, Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, places this masterpiece in context – beside related studies as well as works by other 19th-Century artists tackling the same theme. And it leaves us in no doubt that Seurat was far from the only modern artist fascinated by the circus.

In fact, if we consider the development of modern art, it quickly becomes apparent that, like Seurat, artists from Renoir and Degas to Picasso and Matisse all felt compelled to depict the circus.

To understand why, we must cast our minds back to a time, before the advent of cinema, when the circus was one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment, alongside the café-concert (the French equivalent of the music hall).

In on the act

“Absolutely everybody went to the circus,” says Richard Thomson, professor of fine art at the University of Edinburgh, and guest curator of Seurat’s Circus Sideshow at the Met. “Working-class people went to the travelling fairs, which came on a regular basis and were very cheap. But there were also chic circuses. There was a circus in Paris in the 1880s, called the Cirque Molier, which was really for society people – one of the acrobats was the Duke de La Rochefoucauld. He performed a trapeze act with an artist called Theo Wagner, who had been at the École des Beaux-Arts, the art school in Paris, with Seurat. It was extremely fashionable.”

On a straightforward level, the appeal of the circus for artists needs little explanation: all those tumblers and clowns in bright costumes offered painters a rich, ready-made subject full of dynamism and drama. “Artists have always been interested in the circus, because, as a visual spectacle, it’s very exciting,” explains Thomson. 

The Met’s show demonstrates that, long before Seurat, caricaturists such as Daumier were getting in on the act. Like Seurat, Daumier depicted the circus ‘parade’ (or sideshow) – a temporary structure, erected outside the big top, on which acrobats and musicians performed excerpts of their acts for free, to drum up business.

Daumier drew parallels between saltimbanques – the French word for circus performers, derived from the Italian saltimbanco (someone who jumps on a bench) – and politicians, who were similarly desperate to catch the interest (and, in their case, votes) of the masses. 

But other factors, beyond simple spectacle, contributed to the appeal of the circus for modern artists. “Their fascination was varied and complex,” explains Thomson, “but one aspect was that the circus was constantly changing.”

Since the Middle Ages, the circus had been an integral part of time-honoured travelling fairs, which were deeply embedded in French culture. Beginning in the 1860s, though, impresarios in Paris and elsewhere began to capitalise on the increasing popularity of the circus by erecting permanent rings, with fixed seating.

The circus' association with melancholy and alienation stirred a generation of artists 

“Circuses needed to present new spectacles to keep the punters coming in,” explains Thomson. “And that sense of modern momentum and need for change and innovation – of being on the edge, being up to date – attracted artists who were conscious of their own modernity, and interested in the spectacle of modernity, such as Renoir and Degas.”

In 1879, for instance, Renoir painted two young female acrobats at the Cirque Fernando, a Parisian circus founded four years earlier, and situated in a working-class area at the foot of the hill of Montmartre, not far from other places of popular entertainment such as the Moulin Rouge.

Degas, too, frequented the Cirque Fernando. Also in 1879, he painted one of its most sensational acts, involving an acrobat known as Miss La La, who was pulled up to the rafters of the circus dome by a rope clenched between her teeth. The painting’s vertiginous composition, looking upwards at the acrobat, who hangs precariously in mid-air, is striking and original.

“It’s a marvellous painting,” says Thomson. “But also, I think, something of a pun – because by drawing attention to this figure going upwards, it’s like a religious painting of the Ascension. So, it’s a bit of a joke at the expense of pious imagery from the past.”

Clowning around

While the innovations of the modern circus excited artists associated with Impressionism, such as Renoir and Degas, other aspects – chiefly, its association with melancholy and alienation – stirred the generation of artists that followed them, including Seurat. (In 1891, Seurat died suddenly, at the age of 31, leaving behind another major, albeit unfinished, scene filled with circus entertainers.)

By way of example, Thomson mentions a group of crayon and chalk drawings of circus figures that Toulouse-Lautrec produced while undergoing treatment for alcoholism at a sanatorium on the edge of Paris in 1899. “He made them from memory, to try and prove his mental stability,” Thomson says. “And some of them have a slightly nightmarish quality, because they were drawn by a man who was not well.”

Moreover, by the end of the 19th Century, the notion of the sad clown was a firmly established trope. This idea stretched all the way back to Watteau’s ambiguous 18th-Century painting of a wan and solitary Pierrot, a stock character from the Commedia dell’arte, imbued with a sense of pathos.

Thomson explains: “There was a strong understanding of the myth of the sad clown – the clown or acrobat who does everything to entertain the public, and make them laugh, but is, himself, deep down inside, melancholy and alienated.”

Why was this myth so attractive for artists such as Seurat? “Part of the fascination,” Thomson says, “was because travelling players lived on the edge. They were people with no fixed abode, who were reliant on good weather and the goodwill of the public. And being on the margins of society made them fragile.” He continues: “Artists identified with people on the edge of society. The painter trying to sell work that the bourgeoisie wasn’t interested in was like a clown – doing his best to entertain, but not always succeeding. So, circus performers became an equivalent for artists, who treated them almost autobiographically.”

Certainly, this is what we find in the Rose or ‘circus’ period paintings of Picasso, who also frequented the Cirque Medrano (as the Cirque Fernando was renamed around the turn of the 20th Century). Family of Saltimbanques (1905), for instance, is the masterpiece of Picasso’s series of paintings of melancholic itinerant circus performers, who function as symbols for the artist and his circle. “These paintings go right back to the idea of the sad clown, and are very much about alienation and solitude,” Thomson says.

Many other 20th-Century artists depicted the circus – among them Kees Van Dongen, Fernand Leger, and Georges Rouault, whose Sideshow (1907-10), is in the exhibition at the Met. During the ‘20s, the American sculptor Alexander Calder also became enthralled by acrobats. They inspired the Cirque Calder (1926-31) – a charming, miniaturised, mechanical sculpture-cum-replica of a circus, complete with acts including a bearded lady and a lion tamer that could ‘perform’ for an audience. Calder travelled with this early example of performance art, which eventually filled five large suitcases. 

One of the final flourishes of the circus as a subject in modern art, though, came in 1947, with the publication of Matisse’s spellbinding artist’s book, Jazz. This contains 20 colour plates bursting with circus performers, including acrobats, trapeze artists, a high-wire walker, a knife-thrower, an equestrienne, a sword-swallower, a ringmaster, and a white elephant balancing on a ball. Indeed, its original title was The Circus.

In other words, Jazz – which one art historian has described as “the closest thing to an autobiography that Matisse has left us” – is a late but brilliant example of the traditional identification between artist and performer – with an additional, poignant twist: Matisse worked on the cut-paper designs for Jazz while convalescing after a life-threatening operation, which had left him an invalid in 1941.

“How interesting that Matisse made Jazz right at the end of his life when he was physically frail,” says Thomson. “And yet the imagery that he was dealing with was of gymnasts and vigorous movement. So, ironically, given the wonderful colour of his images, there is a sense of regret and loss as well. That double dimension – of joy and melancholy – is consistent throughout modern representations of the circus.”

Alastair Sooke is art critic and columnist of the Daily Telegraph.

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