Georges Seurat was a visionary. He applied primary colors in tiny dots, and ended up with unbelievably beautiful novel textures and shades. His technique was based on the theory of the color wheel and as a reaction to the spontaneous, loosely constructed images of the Impressionists. Seurat based his own figures on careful drawings made with a Conté crayon on rough paper, a technique that again resulted in a specific texture. They often look like abstract silhouettes, an impression enhanced in Circus Sideshow, on exhibit at the Met through May 29, by the ethereal illumination provided by the gaslights that line the upper edges of the painting.
In Circus Sideshow, the row of heads of the would-be clients frames the bottom edge of the mesmerizing painting. They wear assorted hats. A trombone player, his fellow musicians, a jester and the ringmaster all try to entice the crowd to pay a few pennies to enter the circus tent and see the actual show, which fills the body of the canvas. The picture is formally constructed, with strong vertical and horizontal divisions.
It is fitting that the Met displays Seurat’s Circus Sideshow in 2017, the last year that Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Brothers’ “Greatest Show on Earth” will tour America. The circus, a word that has become synonymous with chaos and bedlam, is one of humanity’s oldest entertainments. Circus shows have changed little since the late 19th century when Seurat painted the Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) that depicts the free teaser meant to attract a paying audience.
Seurat’s last painting, The Circus, is a joyous view of the performance inside the tent. Its most important feature is a triumphant woman balanced atop a galloping white stallion. The bleachers, filled with hatted spectators, emphasize the painting’s relationship to the Circus Sideshow.
At the time of Seurat’s death in 1891, no French museum owned any of his major paintings. John Quinn, an American lawyer who had assembled an amazing collection of modern paintings, left Seurat’s unfinished Circus to the Louvre when he died in 1924. The rest of Quinn’s collection was dispersed, and its sale may have been a contributing factor to the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929.
At the current Met show, the Circus Sideshow is surrounded by contemporary drawings related to popular circuses and fairs. Many of these are by Seurat himself as well as by Honoré Daumier. There are many relevant posters and related paintings. The most amazing of these is Fernand Pelez’s gigantic Grimaces et Misère: Les Saltimbanques, which gives us a very realistic view of a typical circus troupe with its dwarf, clowns and musicians with their brass instruments. As its title implies, the sad faces of the performers illustrates the tragic aspect of people being amused by misfits.
Seurat died at just 32 years old, leaving the world seven large paintings and about forty smaller works. His best-known work is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, now owned by the Art Institute of Chicago. Given such a small output it is surprising that his technique—Neo-Impressionism, pointillism or divisionism—exerted a major influence on the future of the art world.