Seurat’s Circus Sideshow

A fount of inspiration for nineteenth-century French artists.

Seurat's Circus Sideshow
Georges Seurat, Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), 1887–88, oil on canvas, 39¼ x 59 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960

The new Seurat’s Circus Sideshow exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art should not be missed. Seurat may be the featured artist, but many artists are represented including Daumier, Gabriel Boutet, Picasso, Louis Anquetin, Emile Bernard, Pierre Bonnard, Louis Hayet, Lucien Pissarro, and Paul Signac, Jean-Louis Forain, Jean-François Raffaëlli, and the real show stopper, Fernand Pelez. The central visual theme is the show teaser performances or “parades” that were performed to draw audiences into the circus tent by the saltimbanques, or traveling circus street performers. The exhibition demonstrates that these parades were very inspiring subjects to artists of the period. Posters, drawings, illustrations, even an early film depict them in a variety of styles. The circus has something alluring, strange, even exotic about it that proves to be compelling, funny, and sad.

What chiefly interested me was how the array of artists chosen for this exhibition all engaged with the subject in their own unique way. While some artists, like Seurat, found the sideshow a great visual stimulus, others were drawn into the lives of the performers and sought to portray the human experience that was paraded in front of them so colorfully. Gabriel Boutet’s The Fair at Montrouge brilliantly captures a busty performer literally drumming up business. We get a great cross-section of the audience in the foreground. Daumier used the circus troupe to illustrated messages, sometimes political or satirical. These saltimbanques were his cast, and the experience of the individual performers seemed to be of less interest. For example, Daumier’s Baissez le Rideau, la Farce est Jouée (Lower the Curtain; the Farce is Over), an 1834 lithograph, depicts King Louis Philippe dressed as a sideshow clown lowering a curtain that reveals behind it the French parliament as he points at a statue of blinded justice. The message is political, not personal. He is sympathetic in his other portrayals but not interested in the unique individuals. They seem to be types of people, not real people, not portraits. Not a lot of the work in the show is very personal in that sense, visually spectacular, yes, but not interested in the people behind the performance. The focus shifts more to appearances and away from probing perception or becomes more about the artist’s style than the subject.

Seurat's Circus Sideshow
Honoré Daumier, Baissez le Rideau, La Farce est Jouée (Bring Down the Curtain; the Farce is Over), published in La Caricature no. 201, September 11, 1834, lithograph, Sheet: 10 3/16 × 13 5/16 in. Gift of Louise Bechtel, 1958, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is the great Fernand Pelez who steals the show with his monumental Grimaces and Misery from 1888. Painted the same year as the Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, it couldn’t be more different. While Seurat is reacting in a purely visual way, Pelez is a great humanist realist who records the visual evidence that reveals the people behind the costumes and the makeup. Pelez is certainly reacting visually as well, but the realist visual aesthetic records as it organizes and interprets. The medium serves the subject versus the subject simply inspiring the medium. Pelez is foremost about the people, and the Seurat is about light. Seurat seems primarily fascinated with the illumination of an outdoor night scene in his pointillist technique. This isn’t bad; it’s just different. Seurat is entering the aesthetic of modern art that will eventually abandon subjects entirely and focus instead on the formal qualities of paint. Seurat is about color, simplified form, and light. It is remarkable, and very modern, that with so many images full of people that so few of them are about individuals. Pelez, I’m sure, wanted to dazzle us with his skills, but he subordinated the technique to serve the subject. His careful attention to the details of each individual in the painting is remarkable. In no other image in the show did I feel the presence of a person versus a representation of one. The dwarf in particular is very moving.


Seurat's Circus Sideshow
Fernand Pelez, Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques, 1888, oil on canvas, in five sections, 87 3/8 in. x 20ft. 6 7/8 in. Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris Collection Dutuit

Grimaces and Misery depicts a row of circus performers on a raised platform. On the viewer’s right are the seated musicians, sad and tattered. In the middle, in front of the tent’s red entrance, are two clowns, one in a billowing white Pierrot costume with a giant red frog on it and white face, red lips, and a wisp of black hair teased into a point. His red lips are shaped in an oval as he sings. The other clown in a brown outfit stands smiling with his fingers intertwined across his chest, a hand bell stands between his feet. Seated on the stage at the clowns’ feet is a rather sad and thoughtful dwarf. To the left is a huge bass drum and three standing young girls and a crying boy near his smaller drum, all in circus costume. Their expressions and postures are revelations of character. One girl crosses her arms and rolls her eyes in consternation. We catch a glimpse of an older female performer from behind the tent curtain, perhaps the mother. Part of the impact is the scale of the piece; the figures are close to life-size. Against an overall cool greenish striped tent, Pelez designed the color scheme with red accents that appear rhythmically across the tableau, which is really five separate adjacent canvases. The real emphasis is on the central figure of the clown in white contrasted against the red drape backdrop. The red frog on his costume is the focal point of the composition. The viewer discovers the rest of the cast only after noticing this bit of visual fireworks. The sad and the drab sink in afterward. Then you notice the facial expressions, the grimaces, the misery. These performers who are meant to bring joy to an audience experience very little of it themselves.

This is all very different from looking at a Seurat. The people in a Seurat represent shapes for the artist to compose in a poetic visual orchestration. I enjoy art that embraces the medium and the language with which it is created. Some realist pieces lose that joy, looking merely labored with accumulated visual detail, a plodding prose. Sometimes, I want the pleasing arrangement of colors and shapes, dazzling brushwork, and beauty that won’t overwhelm me with a narrative or with grim realities. Grimaces and Misery is not light fare; I don’t think I would want to live with it. It is no small wonder that for several decades the painting languished in a French municipal art depot, and strangely had a spell exhibited in a psychiatric hospital. Seurat is surely more palatable. However, great art covers a spectrum of subjects and emotions. It can’t all be beauty and light, neither should it all be grim and dark. The greatest art is that which perhaps captures and enlightens a bit from the full range of our experiences. Pelez has humor and pathos as well as the visually compelling in his saltimbanques. It’s a memorable experience to be in front of this painting. It isn’t perfect, but it is very much alive. Walking away from the Seurat I may be thinking about beautiful paint, but turning away from the Pelez I am thinking about life. I like both experiences.

Seurat’s Circus Sideshow continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 29, 2017.

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