Taking as its focus one of its more engaging masterpieces, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has organized a thematic exhibition that offers a unique historical context for appreciating the tradition and allure of the enchanting Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) (1887-88) by the French Post-Impressionist Georges Seurat (1859-91).
Georges Seurat, Pierrot and Colombine, ca. 1886–88
Joined by a remarkable group of seventeen related works by the artist that illuminates the lineage of the motif in Seurat’s inimitable conté crayon drawings, the exhibition explores the fascination the subject held for other 19th century artists from the influential 19th century caricaturist Honoré Daumier, whose caricatures lampooned the changing political climate in 19th century France, to a young Pablo Picasso at the fin de siècle. More than 100 works are on loan ranging from drawings, prints, vintage posters, illustrated journals and musical instruments that vividly depict traveling circuses and fairs of the period. One of the many viewing pleasures is the whiff of Parisian joie de vivre and the city’s bustling art scene.
Georges Seurat, Trombonist, 1887–88
Seurat worked on Circus Sideshow for six years and it represents one of a half dozen figurative paintings he produced. The artist is known for his draftsmanship seen in the painting’s precise geometric shapes, as well as his innovative use of pointillism (brush strokes of dots) and divisionism (separating and dividing color), techniques he developed leading to the Neo-Impressionist era.
Honoré Daumier, The Sideshow (La Parade), ca. 1865–66
Circus Sideshow details the purchase of tickets and the attendant Parade, a come-on or sideshow featuring groups of Saltimbangues (circus performers) and rousing music as free entertainment. Customers are expected to queue up the stairs to the box office. On the makeshift stage under the glow of nine twinkling gaslights, five musicians, a ringmaster and clown play to the assembled crowd of onlookers whose assorted hats add a wry and rhythmic note to the foreground of this austere nocturnal painting, the only nighttime composition Seurat produced before his untimely death at 31.
Fernand Pelez, Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques, 1888
Among the Seurats on display are three surviving preparatory studies for Circus Sideshow and a suite of five drawings of cafe society singers. The other Seurat painting is the small version of “Models” (Poseuses) 1887-88, in which the artist reverses direction rendering daylight, flesh and a moment of relaxation. The larger version resides in the Barnes Collection and debuted with Circus Sideshow in the 1888 Salon des Indépendants.
Jean-François Raffaëlli, Les Saltimbanques-L’Orchestre en parade, 1884
Other highlights: Rembrandt’s dry painted Christ Presented To the People (1655); a first-time showing in the U.S. of Fernand Pelez’s monumental Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques (Petit Palais, Paris), which was presented at the Salon of 1888, at the same time as Seurat’s brooding masterpiece debuted at the Salon des Indépendants. And catch such favorites as Pierre Bonnard, Lucien Pissarro, Emile Bernard, and the American Maurice Pendergast, among others.
Kudos must go to historian and guest curator Richard Thomas professor of Fine Arts at the University of Edinburgh and the Met’s Susan Alysin Stein, curator of Nineteenth Century European Paintings in the Department of European Paintings for the brilliant installation and fine catalogue.
Through May 29, 2017, Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Images (in order):
Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), 1887–88
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960
Pierrot and Colombine, ca. 1886–88
Kasama Nichido Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of
Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986
The Sideshow (La Parade), ca. 1865–66
Fernand Pelez (French, 1848–1913)
Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques, 1888
Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
Jean-François Raffaëlli (French, 1850–1924)
Saltimbanques—The Sideshow Orchestra
(Les Saltimbanques—L’Orchestre en parade), ca. 1884