The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a wonderful new exhibit of works by one of my favorite artists: Georges Seurat. Centered on his masterpiece, Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), it features more than 100 paintings, drawings, posters and prints by artists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries on this theme.
Seurat, who lived only to age 31, is probably best known as the inventor of pointillism, but he left a body of work that continues to inspire, and not only in the visual arts – think Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George. Seurat’s outdoor subjects were painted in daylight; Circus Sideshow is his only painting of the outdoors under artificial illumination, in this case, gas light, which allowed Parisians to more safely enjoy evening entertainments such as café concerts, opera, dining out, and the evening stroll. Circuses and traveling fairs, popular forms of urban entertainment, were the subject of many illustrations and art works in the 19th century. The sideshow was especially important, as this free performance lured in paying customers to the larger spectacle – making it akin to the modern day movie trailer.
In the center of the exhibit is Circus Sideshow, depicting the fairground scene of the Corvi Circus troupe at the Gingerbread Fair in Paris. The painting’s pale purplish hues convey that in-between feeling of dusk, and its formalized, geometric composition provides a certain gravity to what was assuredly a raucous affair. As a viewer, you feel like you’re at the back of the crowd, watching as the spectators line up to buy tickets while five musicians, a clown and the ringmaster entertain them, illuminated by twinkling gaslights across the top of the painting. The hats of the crowd provide a rhythmic touch, while also clearly showing how the circus cut across class lines (even if they sit on separate sides of the show). Exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1888, Circus Sideshow has bedazzled and bewildered viewers ever since.
The exhibit also includes 17 related conté crayon drawings by Seurat, including preparatory studies and some of the café-concert sketches of the music halls in Montmartre that were exhibited alongside the painting in 1888.
Despite the strong diagonal of the dancer’s leg that mimics the neck of the double bass, this drawing nonetheless remains balanced.
The head in the front below a line of standing figures is an element that Seurat used again in his painting.
You’ll also find two cases of brass and woodwind period instruments, that would have been used in Seurat’s painting, including this ophicleide in E-flat with 9 keys, a low brass instrument that was a predecessor of the tuba. This instrument was made by Charles Sax, father of Adolphe Sax, who invented the saxophone.
Works by other artists of the era abound in this show, as the circus was a popular theme. This work by Henri Daumier illustrates some of the crueler aspects of the circus – what became known as the freak show – when people with bodies outside the mainstream were routinely put on display as objects of curiosity (and a certain amount of derision).
Paul Signac, another pointilist of the era, offers us this bright rendering of a traveling fair near his studio by the Place de Clichy, caught in the calm of mid-day, before the evening excitement begins.
While the sideshow was an important draw for the circus, posters were widely used to attract crowds. This one for Corvi’s Miniature Theatre-Circus, promises amazing feats by goats, horses, mules, apes and dogs. Notice the similarity in Corvi’s tailcoat, and the one worn by the ringmaster in Seurat’s painting.
Occupying its own wall is Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques by Fernand Pelez, that was shown at the official Salon of 1888, right before the closing of the Salon des Indépenents, where Seurat showed. Twenty feet wide, this painting’s life-size depiction of sideshow performers (saltimbanques) are arranged in a tripartite structure, starting from the left, with four young performers, who already look like they know how bleak their futures will be; the middle panel with the quizzical dwarf and two clowns; and the final panel of three aged, exhausted musicians. While not everyone liked this realistic portrayal of circus performers, Pelez’s painting received the Silver Medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Although different in style, compositionally this painting and Seurat’s have much in common.
Ladies and Gentlemen: There is much, much more to see: paintings, lithographs, drawings and ephemera!
Works by Hayet, Bonnard, Pissarro, and even a Picasso!
So step right up to the Met and see Seurat’s Circus Sideshow before it closes on May 29th.