The circus is in town! But not for much longer: the fascinating exhibition “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” at the Metropolitan Museum is about to close (29 May). Already gone, alas, is the world-famous Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which folded up its big tent for the final time on Sunday—after 146 years of continuous operation.
Today we scarcely remember the centrality of the circus to our culture—a form of mass entertainment before television. Circuses heralded a world of wonder, bringing animals and people from the Earth’s four corners to perform impossible feats for audiences in small towns.
Free teaser sideshows were staged to entice people to buy tickets for the main event. One such was the Gingerbread Fair at the Corvi Circus, held annually in a working-class district in Paris for three weeks after Easter Sunday in the 1880s. The French Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat saw the troupe in 1887 and was inspired to create his first work focusing on popular culture, Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) (1887-88), a painting that was also his first nocturnal scene. First shown in the Salon des Indépendants in 1888, it is now the star of the Met exhibition, hung alongside work by others artists from the 1840s through the 20th century and period musical instruments.
Circuses were historically one of the few places where high and low culture met, and the exhibition reminds us how artists charted the contours of that fragmented society. Circus-themed novels, such as Les Frères Zemganno (1879) by Edmond de Goncourt, and popular prints from the 1880s indicate that by Seurat’s time many artists were focusing on the anxieties of the performers (while still grappling with the aesthetic challenge of depicting the spectacle of performers bathed in light and astonished audiences sinking in shadow).
Honoré Daumier’s works command particular attention at the Met. He focuses on the performers, particularly the saltimbanques or clowns—figures of merriment to the crowd but shown by Daumier enveloped in melancholy. There is market demand for these thematic Daumier works, when they come up for sale: in 2013, Aguttes sold Quel spectacle d’horreur (1864-65) for €550,000—far above its €40,000 low estimate. Back in 1995, La parade (1865), sold for $1.2m at Sotheby’s against a presale estimate of $600,000-$800,000.
One of the standout works in the Met show (which has been co-organized by the endlessly inventive Susan Alyson Stein, Engelhard Curator of 19th-Century European Painting at the Met, together with Richard Thomson, Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh) is the monumental oil by Fernand Pelez called Grimaces et misères—les saltimbanques (1888). In the work—which is more than 20 feet long—the moods of each life-sized performer are portrayed in detail, from the exhausted acrobatic children on the left to the central figures of a haughty dwarf and clown caught mid-song, to the sagging musicians on the right. Sorrow, despair and fatigue lie beneath the facepaint. (A study for the final mural sold in 2011 for $494,500, more than double its $200,000 low estimate, at Sotheby’s.)
Beyond the exhibition, artists such as Alexander Calder were fascinated by the Big Top. In Calder’s Circus (1926-31), now in the Whitney’s collection, the artist choreographed a group of ingeniously crafted wire performers, animals and clowns and narrated a film: one of my most vivid childhood memories is of watching it. Circus imagery permeates many of Calder’s bright colorful gouaches, too, such as Profils (1976), sold by Skinner in January for $147,000 (est. $70,000-$90,000).
Other Modern masters to take on the subject include Picasso, who elevated the saltimbanques to the status of religious icons when painting them in his Rose Period, and who returned to the imagery later in his career. Many of Picasso’s harlequin works have come to auction, from Famille d’arlequin (1905), which sold in 2007 for $9.8m (est. $6m-$8m) at Sotheby’s to Les saltimbanques (1954), for $425,000 (est. $180,000-$250,000) in May 2015 at Christie’s.
I have never seen as many children in Sotheby’s galleries as when we showed Marc Chagall’s Le Grand Cirque (1956) a large painting that sold in 2007 for $13.7m (est. $8m to $12m). Chagall’s circus scenes continue to gain traction in the marketplace: Christie’s sold Les trois acrobates (1926) for $13m in 2013 (est. $6m-$9m), for example.
Henri Matisse was deeply inspired by the circus, including the French word cirque, dancing figures and a sword swallower as some of the signature images in his cut-outs series from the 1940s as well as the highly desirable pochoir plates for his artist’s book Jazz, which followed the cut-outs in 1947. Christie’s sold a set of 20 of the latter from the collection of Sting in 2016 for $739,000 (est. $348,000-$487,000). Such complete sets are rare, and it is even less common for individual cut-out compositions to come to market, such as Arabesques noires et violettes sur un fond orange (1947), sold by Christie’s in 2013 for $1.1m (est. $1m-$1.5m).
Though fewer in number, several prominent contemporary artists have taken a cue from the circus: currently on show at Mnuchin Gallery is “Once Upon a Time, 1981-2011” (until 10 June), an exhibition of photographs by Cindy Sherman that includes Untitled #420 (2004), a diptych of Sherman as both male and female clown balloon-artists, encompassed by color and melancholy.
Now supplanted by popular media, the circus briefly permeated it. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) set in Ringling Brothers, won Best Picture and Best Story at the 1953 Academy Awards. And Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, La Strada (1954), which tells the story of an itinerant strongman and clown, won the first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957.
Many of us fell in love with Dumbo from the Disney movies as children whose parents read to us stories about running away to be in the circus, from Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline and the Gypsies, to Dr Seuss’s If I Ran the Circus. It turns out that ours is probably the last generation to have that opportunity.