The circus art was present in a majority of European, American and Asian societies for quite a long time. The term became increasingly used during the 18th century and it covers a range of different performances from acrobatic acts and clowns, to trained animals and magic. These dramatic, slightly mysterious and ecstatic shows were usually performed in open air structures with limited covered seating. Custom-made circus buildings centered around the ring or a proper stage were built from the late 18th to late 19th century. The cheapest forms of the circus were the traveling fairs which were accessible to the working class, but there were also the extravagant ones like the famous Parisian Cirque Molier in the 1880s.
The beginning of the 20th century brought a new approach and popularization of this specific performance form with the American circus of P. T. Barnum and William Cameron Coup, who introduced innovations such as menagerie and the freak show. Interestingly so, in post-revolutionary Russia, the circus was considered as high art and the people's art-form, and even the state circus school was established during the 1920s.
Due to the circus being widely accepted phenomenon, countless visual artists were fascinated, excited and charged by the unusual characters it attracted, especially during Modernism. The array of colors and movements captivated the artists and offered them dynamic images full of drama. The image of a clown was particularly exploited, something which can be traced back to a fascination with Pierrot, a stock character from the Commedia dell’arte. The circus imagery suited the notion of modernity since it functioned as a diverse entity where any individual regardless of class, race, gender, sexuality or physical ability was accepted.
The circus (in) art was present for quite a long time, and gradually it became just a children’s folly and lost its symbolical significance. We have selected a list of six most iconic paintings of modernist masters which embodied circus in a superb and precise manner.
Featured image: Georges Seurat - Parade de cirque, 1887-88. Image via creative commons
Pablo Picasso produced Family of Saltimbanques in a period from 1904 to 1906. During that time, the artist visited the Cirque Médrano in Montmartre often and was very much intrigued by the image of the saltimbanque, a kind of circus performer.
This composition depicts a their community looking poorly in a desolate place. The scholars argued that it symbolizes Picasso’s circle of poor and isolated artists. It is interesting to point out that the painting was considered inappropriate by the organizers of the IX Biennale of Venice in 1910 and was removed from the Spanish salon.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso - Family of Saltimbanques, 1905. Oil on canvas. Image creative commons
One of the most prosperous, yet tragic figures of modern art is undoubtedly was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. This bohemian lived and worked in Montmartre from 1886 to 1898 and practically entire his oeuvre captures the decadence behind the Moulin Rouge dance hall and the Chat Noir café. The other venue called The Cirque Fernando also belonged to Montmartre’s flamboyant entertainment scene and was artist’s place of nighttime pleasures.
This particular painting captures perfectly a common scene of the equestrian performer in action; she is fierce, riding bareback all fast and furious. By purposely leaving much of surface bare, Toulouse-Lautrec accentuated the rider’s costume and enigmatic expression with highly dramatic and bold strokes of pastel.
Featured image: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - At the Circus Fernando the Rider, 1888. Image creative commons
In 1931, the established American avant-garde pioneer Alexander Calder constructed an extraordinary mobile set up called simply Cirque Calder. This slightly bizarre work was indeed similar to any toy set; it consists of replicas of performers from contortionists and sword eaters to lion tamers. They were made from a various material, mostly wood, and wire.
Calder presented the circus in a performative manner during his time in Paris by moving the figures and narrating in French. The Cirque Calder is kept at the Whitney Museum in New York and is part of the permanent collection.
Featured image: Alexander Calder – Circus, 1926-31. Image via youtube
During 1890-91 Georges Seurat painted Le Cirque which was the third work focused on the theme of the circus after Parade (Circus sideshow) from 1887-88 and Le Chahut from 1889-90.
The composition shows an act of female performer standing on a horse. The scene was captured at the Circus Fernando known better as Circus Médrano, which was located close to Seurat's studio at the corner of the Rue des Martyrs and the Boulevard de Rochechouart. This entertainment form was immensely popular at the time, so it is not unusual that Seurat himself found circus amusing and significant to paint.
Featured image: Georges Seurat - Le Cirque, 1890-91. Image creative commons
Yet another circus theme was painted by Auguste Renoir in 1879, and it can be perceived more as a portrait than as a usual depiction of a certain performance.
It is the Cirque Fernando where the artist captured Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg, members of a traveling German acrobatic troupe while bowing and gathering oranges thrown by the audience as a sign of appreciation.
Interestingly so, Renoir represented the performers as much younger than their actual ages of fourteen and seventeen, they have possed in his studio where he could paint them in natural light since the gaslight of the circus was not suitable. By situating the male spectators along the top of the scene, the artist underlined their potential role as patrons of female circus performers.
Featured image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg), 1879. Image creative commons
The last iconic painting focused on circus art is Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando painted in 1879 by the leading French Impressionist mage, Edgar Degas. The composition is centered around the body of the acrobat Miss La La hanging on a rope by her teeth at the already mentioned Parisian Cirque Fernando in Montmartre.
The curiosity is that a certain scholar argued that Miss La La was a woman of color noted for her great strength which enhances the complexity of the whole composition in the context of modernity. The painting was purchased by the Trustees of the Courtauld Fund in 1925, and in 1950 it was transferred from the Tate Gallery to the National Gallery where can be seen as part of the permanent collection.
Featured image: Edgar Degas - Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879. Image creative commons