Text by Geoffrey Smith


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Georges Seurat: The Circus - 1891

Paris, Musée d’Orsay

This picture was exhibited in an unfinished state at the seventh Salon des Indépendants which opened on 20 March 1891. Nine days later Seurat died aged thirty-one. In his short career, spanning from perhaps 1882 to his death he was responsible for the development of an innovative painting technique which he called chromo-luminarism but which quickly came to be known by the more manageable titles of Pointillism or Divisionism.

This technique was informed by a number of scientific theories developed during the 19th century relating to colour, optics and psychology which had gained credence within Post-impressionist and Symbolist circles during the latter part of the century. Essentially Seurat took these ideas and created his own response, which was to work with small juxtaposed dabs (or points) of pure but complementary colour so that, when viewed from a distance, the tiny strokes mix within the viewer’s eye to give the impression of another colour. Here the dominant red–blue–yellow spectrum of dots fuse to give a range of purples, greenish hues, and darker colours but in this, his last picture, the colour range is particularly restricted.

Seurat may also have been reacting to the new technology of the 1880s when printing processes such as chromolithography made an appearance, using minute dots of ink to reproduce colour images. This same process was being used to produce the celebrated posters which adorned Paris in great quantities at this time, advertising all manner of products and events. And it was this ‘popular’ art (especially the work of Jules Chéret) that seems to have effected an interesting ‘cross-fertilisation’ influencing the way Seurat depicted the toy-like figures in this painting.

Even though Seurat is depicting a scene of frenetic movement the painting exudes a stillness just as profound as his earlier more sedentary compositions, despite the use of swirling arabesques to describe the activity within the ring. Seurat’s technique was perhaps inimical to the capture of flowing movement so here the action is caught as if the scene had been illuminated by a single powerful strobe pulse, freezing all movement into a static tableau. It is as if one is viewing a single frame caught in the aperture of a cine projector.

In contrast to earlier output, depicting the outdoor leisure pursuits of middle class Paris during their Sunday excursions to the outskirts of the city (exemplified by his two huge masterpieces Bathers at Asnières and A Sunday on La Grand Jatte), in the last few years of his life Seurat concentrated (with the single exception of a portrait of his mistress) on scenes of urban entertainment. The establishment shown in this painting is the Cirque Fernando, at that time a permanent fixture at 63 Boulevard Rochechouart close to Montmartre. In choosing this subject matter Seurat was treading a well worn path – Degas, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec had all produced memorable paintings of the same circus, Toulouse-Lautrec having painted the same red-headed clown and female rider (with similarly exotic coiffures) in his 1888 painting Equestrienne (at the Cirque Fernando). The circus was a popular pastime in belle époch Paris and not just with the lower classes, the patrician Degas being a particular devotee.

Had he been attending this perfomance, Degas would have most certainly occupied a front row seat; as we can see, the clothing of the audience betrays their class and the rigidly regimented seating became cheaper the further the occupant was from the ringside.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

 

Contemporary Works

1891 Fernand Khnopff: I Lock the Door upon Myself, Munich, Neue Pinakothek

1891 John William Waterhouse: Ulysses and the Sirens, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria

1891 Henri Rousseau: Tiger in a Tropical Storm, London, National Gallery

1891 Paul Gauguin: Women of Tahiti, Paris, Musée d’Orsay

Further Paintings of Interest

The Dining Room

Paul Signac

Palais des Papes, Avignon

Paul Signac

© Great Works of Western Art 2018