Georges SEURAT | The circus (sketch) [Le cirque (esquisse)]

Georges SEURAT
France 1859 – 1891

The circus (sketch)
[Le cirque (esquisse)]
oil on canvas
canvas 55.0 (h) x 46.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Mrs Jacques Doucet, according to her husband's wishes 1937
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

By the late 1880s a new venue had become a favoured subject for artists portraying modern life. In his essay, ‘Circuses, Theatres, Social Commentary’ published in La Revue indépendante in December 1887, the critic Félix Fénéon had complained that the Parisian stage was in a serious state of decline:

For a long time now the stories of adultery recounted on our stages have been utterly dull. Unbearable in everyday life, they’ve not gained any attraction for having been prolonged by the performances of our best actors ... What’s left are our circuses.1

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Paris had four large circuses: the seasonal Cirque d’Eté and Cirque d’Hiver, the chic, more fashionable Nouveau-Cirque, and the Cirque Fernando (subsequently known as Cirque Médrano).2 The Fernando was the subject of the present work, Seurat’s The circus (sketch).

Here we see a young female equestrian performing bareback on a prancing horse, a crop in one hand as an acrobat cavorts behind her. To the left, the ringmaster holds an outstretched whip, orchestrating the performance, while in the foreground a smiling clown stands with his back to the viewer—indicated by his shoulders, while with one hand he pulls back the curtain on the scene. The background shows the bare outlines of a few members of the audience and an orchestra conductor with his baton raised.

This work is the only known oil sketch for Seurat’s monumental 1.85 x 1.52 metre painting The circus 18913. Both this sketch and the larger canvas, along with several preparatory drawings, were made in the years 1890–91. For The circus (sketch) Seurat has chosen the primary colours of red, yellow and blue, applied in feathery brushstrokes on a painted white canvas, and used mixtures of these to make the additional colours of pink and a green.

Seurat had met the French scientist Charles Henry at the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, where his work A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte 18864 was on display. This was Seurat’s groundbreaking painting heralding the arrival of his new style. His interest in Henry’s theories of linear expression consolidated his own earlier absorption of such ideas, which were expounded by Charles Blanc, whose writings Seurat had begun reading at the age of sixteen.5 The circus (sketch) exemplifies Seurat’s interest in linear expression, where a warm palette and upwardly moving lines evoke a sense of joyfulness, evident here in the artist’s adoption of dynamic and uplifting lines and his use of reds, pinks and yellows. This painting also reflects the influence on artists by the noted French poster-maker of the day, Jules Chéret, whose brightly coloured, playful imagery entranced all of Paris.

Jane Kinsman

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. ‘Cirques, Théâtres, Politique.’ Quoted in Joan U. Halperin (ed.), Félix Fénéon:oeuvres plus que completes, 2 vols, Geneva: Librairie Droz 1970, p. 255.
  2. National Gallery, London and The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, respectively.
  3. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
  4. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
  5. Robert L. Herbert, Françoise Cachin, Anne Distel et al., Georges Seurat, 1859–1891, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1991.