Seurat’s Circus Sideshow: A Hypnotic Work

Richard Thomson

Noise, vitality, movement, boisterousness…these are some of the things that one would expect from a circus scene. But in Georges Seurat’s painting Parade de Cirque, everything is unusually still, almost petrified. Even more strange is the way Seurat painted the work, composed of a profusion of dazzling dots.

In this talk, Professor Richard Thomson explores the mystery and fanciful technique of one of Seurat’s masterworks. What’s that clown up to? Who is that dapper ringmaster? Could this circus scene tell us something about the political climate Seurat was working in?

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This is a wonderfully exciting painting. It shows the crowd in the fairground. They’re drawn to the circus by the musicians, the ringmaster, the clown who’s with him. That’s a sort of scene that would lead one to expect noise, vitality, movement, boisterousness.

But Seurat painted a picture that is anything but raucous and energised. It’s still. As if he’s petrified the sense of what this is all about into something very calm. And that paradox, that contrast between what one sees and what one expects is something that gives the painting this wonderful sense of mystery. It’s a really hypnotic work.

Parade de Cirque is Seurat’s fourth major painting. It’s fascinating for various reasons. It represents musicians and other performers at the circus, including the ringmaster and owner of this particular circus, Ferdinand Corvi – a man with a splendid moustache who always wore a tail coat when he was presenting things as the ringmaster. And there he is in Seurat’s picture. So, this is the Circus Corvi, at a travelling fair – the Foire au pain d’epice, the gingerbread fair. It was the most famous and celebrated public fair in Paris.

And a ‘parade’ is not a parade in the sense of a procession. It’s when the performers at a circus would get up in front of a crowd, and they would tell some jokes, do a bit of dancing, play some music and try to bring in the public, and get the public to come in.

The travelling fairs had been going on for ages. And there were small groups of people, the Saltimbanques, the travelling players, who moved from town to city to village in France performing at these events. There were all sorts of different spectacles to appeal to everyone, you would have singers, dancers, musicians, fortune tellers, wrestlers. You would always have a mermaid, you would have the fat lady. The gingerbread fair sold gingerbread, gingerbread cut into all sorts of extraordinary shapes: Napoleon, or nurses with big bosoms. It was vulgar, it was fun, it was varied.

They were taking a risk, it may well be that what they did didn’t appeal to the public. And that was a little bit of an analogy with the modern artist, the artist trying to get attention for his or her work.

Seurat was an extremely interesting artist, he was developing a new style of painting and drawing. Sadly, it was a very short career, but his work very rapidly separates itself from what was conventionally done at the time which was to be very descriptive. Seurat tended to, in broad terms, idealise. He would simplify. He was interested in theories like Chevreul’s theory of complementary colours. And these were giving him ideas about how he could make colour more vivid, more true to our visual experience, more optically correct and that’s why he developed his approach of painting with the dot. Putting dots next to each other. So, if he was painting grass, he would paint it green, different kinds of green, but then because red is the complementary to green he would add some dots of red in order to sharpen up, to enliven the greens. And then he might also add some yellow to give the effect of sunlight on the grass. So, he was quite systematic about the way he used colour but that’s not to say it wasn’t expressive.

One of the things that is very fascinating about Parade de Cirque is that it is a picture that’s on a cusp. There is something that is descriptive about it, we can read the subject very clearly. And yet at the same time it’s a picture that is highly stylised, very controlled, very concerned to explore the twilight effect of artificial gaslight at night. So, it’s balanced between naturalism and high style. And that tension is something that was very apparent in art for the next twenty or thirty years.

The painting is very balanced in composition, it has the trombonist standing on dais in the centre. And to the left, on the platform, are the musicians, on the right a buffoon-type character and the ringmaster. And below them, at the street level, is the crowd. Waiting to decide whether they go in or not. But everything is balanced, everything is very still. It was a question of distilling the emotion into something that was very controlled.

When Seurat painted Parade de Cirque, this was towards the end of the second decade of the Third Republic in France. This was a democratic regime and its slogan was ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’, very republican. When one looks at Seurat’s painting It looks very fraternal, very egalitarian and very appropriate to republican France. Yet, on the left-hand side you see women with no hats, men wearing caps or bowler hats, very working class or lower middle class, and on the right-hand side, queuing this time for the more expensive seats, women in fashionable bonnets and men in top hats who are very much bourgeois, middle class. So, we need to ask questions about that. Might that have been some sort of comment about how, despite the slogan of fraternité, and egalité, the Third Republic wasn’t quite as fraternal and equal as it would like people to believe.

Perhaps another reason why Seurat was so fascinated by the subject of the parade at the circus was because it was a very commonly-used metaphor in political caricature, and it had been throughout the 19th century. Why? Because the parade of the circus performers, up there on the platform, playing their instruments, giving their chat, saying “Come on, come and see the show. You want to pay, to take what I offer…”, and that’s very similar to what politicians say.

You know, “Listen to me, don’t listen to the others, and stick with me.” And so that parallel between the circus parade and the persuasive and perhaps untrustworthy politician is something that was very vivid in the imagination at the time, and may possibly have been in the back of Seurat’s mind.

Ultimately, we don’t know what it’s about. It has a sense of mystery and perhaps melancholy, but it is based on a popular subject, Seurat’s invention as a painter, his response to popular culture and to political caricature, and his challenge to the way contemporaries saw their society.

Archive

 

Alamy Stock Photo
Barnes Foundation
Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zürich
British Museum
Getty Images
Menard Art Museum, Aichi, Japan
The Metropolitan Museum, New York
Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, Marseilles
Pond5
Shutterstock
Victoria and Albert Museum
Wellcome Collection

 

Music

 

Audionetwork

 

Sound

 

Adam_N / Freesound

 

Full list of images shown

 

German vaudeville performer juggling 3 balls and top hat, 1895
Archive films / Getty Images

 

Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque)
Georges Seurat, 1887-1888
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Neighbourhood kids put on an amateur circus show in the 1940s
Rick Ray / Shutterstock

 

A strongman (Charles A. Post) with a big moustache and a top hat surveys theater and pushes his assistant (Molly Malone) who carries five suitcases, one hanging from her mouth, into men (Fatty Arbuckle & Buster Keaton), 1910
Silverwell Films / Getty Images

 

Ringling Brothers Circus Hosts Charity Gala in New York, 1955
Onyx Media / Getty Images

 

Double Jointed Woman Contortionist Circus Show 1960S
Tbmpvideo / Pond5

 

Bleachers collapsing as crowd falls on ground and then runs out of circus tent, 1926
Archive Farms / Getty Images

 

Photograph of Georges Seurat
Photographer unknown, n.d.
PD-1923

 

The Corvi Circus at the Gingerbread Fair
Cours de Vincennes, Paris, 1906
Postcard
Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, Marseilles
via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Paris—The Gingerbread Fair (La Foire aux pains d’épice)
From Le Journal illustré, April 8, 1877
Wood engraving, 14 7/8 x 11 in. (37.7 x 28 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Sideshow at the Gingerbread Fair, Paris
(Parade à la Foire au pain d’épices), c.1900
Stereoscopic-format postcard
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Fête de Neuilly-sur-Seine, Le Cirque Corvi, c.1900
Postcard
PD-1923

 

Les Saltimbanques
Honoré Daumier, c.1886-1867
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Drawing (Clown playing a drum)
Honoré Daumier, c.1885-1867
British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

O maître Bilboquet, nous sommes flambés…. (Oh master Bilboquet, we are ruined…) / Les Saltimbanques
Honoré Daumier, 1839
British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Le Mystere Du Jour
X3A Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Miss Rosie (weight 36 stone) holding a bouquet of flowers
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY 4.0)

 

Two Greedy Kids on the Gingerbread Fair in Paris, End of the 30s
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

 

Foire au Pain d’épice
Place de la Nation, Paris, France, 1st April 1934
KEYSTONE-FRANCE / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

 

Scared crowd running out of circus tent as clown climbs up tent pole, 1926
Archive Farms / Getty Images

 

Man (Snub Pollard) in mini-car with giant magnet moving along street, 1923
Archive Films / Getty Images

 

Man with mustache (Snub Pollard) covering ‘Garbage’ sign to make it ‘Garage’ on container, 1923
Archive Films / Getty Images

 

The Ladies’ Man (L’Homme á Femmes)
Georges Seurat, 1890
Barnes Foundation
Public Domain

 

Study for ‘Circus Sideshow’
Georges Seurat, 1887–88
Ink squared in graphite on paper
Menard Art Museum, Aichi, Japan
Via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

The Tree
Georges Seurat, 1887-1888
Conté crayon on paper
Private Collection via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Models (Poseuses)
Georges Seurat, 1886-1888
Barnes Foundation
Public Domain

 

Study for ‘Circus Sideshow’
Georges Seurat, 1887-1888
Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection, Zürich
via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Optics: a colour-circle, after M. E. Chevreul
Coloured process print by R.H. Digeon, n.d. [c. 1868]
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY 4.0)

 

Modern chromatics: with applications to Art and Industry
Ogden N. Rood, 1879
Published by D. Appleton and Company, New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Gray Weather, Grande Jatte
Georges Seurat, ca. 1886-1888
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Study for ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’
Georges Seurat, 1884
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Liberty Leading the People
Eugène Delacroix, 1830
PD-1923

 

Unité, indivisibilité de la République. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort
Calendar
Published by Paul André Basset, 1793
British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Pole-vault: An exercise taken from the circus
Honoré Daumier
From ‘News of the Day’, published in Le Charivari, 9 March 1870
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Here you see the great celebrities of literary, musical, and artistic France; they are thirty-six feet tall measured below sea level (Vous voyez ici les grandez célébrités)
Honoré Daumier
From Les Saltimbanques, published in ‘La Caricature’, 28 April 1839
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Public Domain

 

Mr Keratr
Honoré Daumier
Plate 314, No. 150 from ‘La Caricature’, 19 September 1833
British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Boulay de la Meurthe
Artist unknown, c.1848-58
British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

Mr Barthe
Honoré Daumier
Plate 294, No. 141 from ‘La Caricature’, 12 September 1833
British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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