Text by Geoffrey Smith
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In this painting we are party to a parade de cirque – a sideshow or taster designed to whet the appetite of passers by and persuade them to part with their entrance fee in order to see the full performance of the circus within. Our attention is caught initially by the figure of a mysterious trombonist who stands at the centre of the stage, elevated on a plinth which may also project forward into the small crowd of onlookers. His stance is at once passive (perhaps one might detect a note of effeminacy) but also confrontational, even faintly sinister. To a considerable extent this effect stems from the musician’s choice of headgear – a very peculiar conical hat which could be an indication of secondary duties as a magician.
To the left of this singular musician three more members of the ensemble accompany him (with the instrument and left arm of a further player just visible on the extreme left), each standing at an exact distance from each other, each dressed the same: were it not for a difference in height they could be taken for clones. To the right of the central figure, in front of the cash kiosk the ringmaster struts, his cane held firmly under his arm in military style. The heads of the crowd are either seen directly from behind, chiming with the frontal orientation of the band, or in profile like the ringmaster. This rigorous arrangement reminds one of an Assyrian relief – flat, alien, pregnant with unknowable mysteries.
This picture is very different from Seurat’s earlier sun-drenched compositions such as Bathers at Asnières and Sunday on la Grande Jatte. Whereas these two masterpieces depict the escape of city dwellers to the cooling airs of the river Seine’s suburban reaches during a summer weekend, Circus Sideshow is unremittingly urban and wintry, the scene lit by the glow of gas lighting. Although a link remains with these earlier pictures in that Seurat is illustrating the pastimes of ordinary people, this piece also represents a further development in his researches into optics and it is the first time he had used the technique which later came to be called ‘pointillist’ to represent the effects of artificial light. (It seems that the impetus for this may have come from the publication by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé of a paper by Whistler on the problems associated with the depiction of artificial light.)
Seurat’s working method, which he rather clumsily called chromo-luminarism, resulted from his interest in colour theory and led him into the study of a number of scientific disciplines. Essentially this involved the application of small juxtaposed dabs (or points) of pure but complementary colour which, when viewed from a distance mix within the viewer’s eye to give the impression of another colour. Here the dominant blue–orange–yellow spectrum of dots fuse to give a range of greens, purples and darker colours.
This is not the only circus scene Seurat painted – his unfinished work in the Musée d’Orsay (The Circus) depicts the scene once we have paid and passed into the arena. It might be seen as a companion piece to Circus Sideshow, introducing us to the delights awaiting us, transporting us from the cold, foggy street to an entrancing domain of light, movement, glamour and excitement. The circus was a very popular part of social life in belle époque Paris and not just for the lower classes – the patrician Degas was a devotee (one of his most memorable pictures is of the trapeze artist Miss La La) as were many of those in the Impressionist circle. But there can be few more strange and memorable images to emerge from the circus milieu than this hauntingly enchanting if slightly unsettling painting.
More articles on Seurat paintings at Neoimpressionsm.net
1888 Paul Sérusier: The Talisman, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
1888 Childe Hassam: April Showers, Champs Elysées, Paris, Omaha, Joslyn Art Museum
1888 James Ensor: The Entry of Christ into Brussels, Antwerp, Kroninklijk Museum