Seurat’s Circus Sideshow: A Hypnotic Work

Seurat’s Circus Sideshow: A Hypnotic Work


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 the 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 des 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 is 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.

Dereck Turner

1 thought on “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow: A Hypnotic Work

  1. Efrain Mcshell says:

    a pleasure that keeps me looking at it, it is so contagious.

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