Seurat’s Circus Sideshow

Ioanna Kanellopoulos

            “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” is an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fifth Avenue), February 17 - May 29, 2017, that focuses on one of Georges Seurat’s paintings entitled Parade de Cirque (1887-88), which is French for circus sideshow. Along with Parade de Cirque, an array of related work by Seurat and other artists is included.

            The exhibition is displayed in the Robert Lehman Collection Wing, a rhombus shaped room. Georges Seurat’s painting Parade de Cirque is the first work of art visible once a spectator enters the gallery. Other works of art, including several sketches that Seurat drew for his work on the painting Parade de Cirque are visible once the spectator moves further into the gallery. There is also plethora of works in other mediums and forms, like books, posters, and even a stereoscopic photograph that must be viewed through a stereoscope mounted to the wall of the exhibit to gain a 3-D effect, popular at the time.

            When Parade de Cirque was first exhibited in 1888, it was considered one of Georges Seurat’s least successful works. The subject of the painting is the sideshow of the Circus Corvi at Place de la Nation in Paris. The scene depicts circus performers, primarily musicians, at nighttime. The audience members in the foreground are depicted almost in silhouette. They are painted using very dark colors and the lights in the painting are illuminating the circus performers that the audience is watching.  The illumination of the circus performers is very evident: around each of the circus performers is painted a halo of lighter colors, making it seem almost as if the figures are glowing.

            The painting as a whole employs a great deal of symmetry, with the main figure in the painting being displayed directly in the center. Much of the painting’s background shows rigid lines and geometric shapes. The way the figures occupy the space around them suggests additional straight lines and shapes. Parade de Cirque is reminiscent of later Cubism and indeed inspired Cubist artists such as Pablo Picasso. The symmetry of the painting brought to mind for me the films of Wes Anderson, who often positions his subjects within the center of the frame, and therefore it would not be surprising if the very well respected film director Wes Anderson also drew inspiration from Parade de Cirque, if not Seurat’s work in general.

            After Georges Seurat’s painting Parade de Cirque, the work of art that lords over the exhibit with another depiction of a circus scene is Fernand Pelez’s Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques (1888). At over twenty feet long, this painting, done in a more realistic style that Seurat’s abstract Parade de Cirque, is impossible to overlook. Pelez places a plethora of circus performers in prominent positions in his painting. They seem to exude a sort of discontent and depression at their plight of being employed in as more or less lower class entertainers. This misery is extremely evident in their faces, and in fact the title of the painting is derived from the emotion that is being imparted. Parade de Cirque does not impart the emotion of the circus performers it displays as prominently as Fernand Pelez does in Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques

            Pelez lived and worked in Paris during the same time as Seurat. Both of the aforementioned paintings were completed and went on view in in Paris in the same year, 1888. Having been exhibited, created and completed in the same location at the same time, it would likely be a correct assumption that both of the artists shared the same inspiration but employed very different art styles in their execution.  Seurat is more concerned with formal aspects and experiments in painting.  His style, known as Neo-Impressionism, Divisionism and/or Pointillism, was very influential for many avant-garde artists that went on to branch into new styles in the early 20th century, especially monochromatic Cubism. Art historian Pierre Courthion considers Georges Seurat’s painting Parade de Cirque as “perhaps the sole work of nineteenth century painting that unequivocally anticipates Cubism,” along with its offshoots.  Seurat’s aim, with his “dots,” was that eye would mix them into a coherent image, based on his study of new color theories at the time.

            The painting Parade de Cirque is very much influenced by the technology beginning to emerge at the end of the nineteenth century, specifically with the invention and the widespread use of gaslights being used to light the streets of Paris at night. Many critics attribute the hazy lighting and silhouettes of Parade de Cirque to the influence of the gas lighting that fascinated Seurat. Another influence, which tells us a lot about leisure for the masses in the 19th century, was the popularity of such “circuses.”  Finally, Seurat’s technique, with his “dots,” which he thought the eye would mix into coherent forms, was influenced by new scientific color theories at the time.

            The exhibit was very cohesive in the way that the other pieces of artwork in the exhibit were integrated to add to the possible meanings in Seurat’s Parade de Cirque and often seem to impart the same sense of misery and the discontent displayed by the circus performers in Pelez’s Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques. This leaves the viewer to think about the circus performers themselves and the quality of their lives. It also leaves the viewers with the irony of the institution of the circus itself—the attendees are there for enjoyment and entertainment, but the people who are providing that enjoyment and entertainment are miserable, as seen in many images in the exhibit. It also makes the viewer in the exhibit consider their position as an observer of what can essentially be considered a circus.

            If you miss this powerful exhibition, I recommend that you seek out and contemplate Seurat’s La Parade in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum any time. 

References

Smith, Roberta (16 February 2017) “Art & Design Review: Cirque due Seurat at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”  The New York Times.  Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/16/arts/design/cirque-du-seurat-at-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art.html?_r=0.

D’Arcy, David (24 February 2017) “All the World Loves a Clown: Circus Sideshow at the Met.” The Observer. Retrieved from http://observer.com/2017/02/clown-art-at-met-museum-circus/

Budick, Ariella(23 March 2017) “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, Metropolitan Museum.” Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/b4813cd0-08d5-11e7-ac5a-903b21361b43.

Wilkin, Karen (21 February 2017) “‘Seurat’s Circus Sideshow’ Review: A Radical Approach to a Familiar Subject.”  The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/seurats-circus-sideshow-review-a-radical-approach-to-a-familiar-subject-1487715396.

Tuchman, Phyllis (28 February 2017) “The Life of the Party: Seurat Dazzles at the Met. Art News.” Retrieved from http://www.artnews.com/2017/02/28/the-life-of-the-party-seurat-dazzles-at-the-met/.

Courthion, Pierre. (1989) Seurat: Masters of Art. Thames and Hudson Ltd. Print.

Courthion, Pierre. (1968) Georges Seurat. The Library of Great Painters (series). H. N. Abrams. Print.


This paper was prepared for the course “Visual Aesthetics” (COM 2500; S17).  For the assignment there was of a choice of a NYC museum exhibition review (from a list of several current exhibitions), or a report on a current debate and efforts related to cultural patrimony concerning objects of art. -- Dr. Jody B. Cutler