How the Rise of the Circus Influenced 250 Years of Visual Art

Alexander Calder, “The Circus,” 1976. Sold for $3,250 via Swann Auction Galleries (November 2017).

It has been 250 merry years since the circus, as we know it today, first came to town.

Assembled in a 42-foot ring at London’s Royal Amphitheatre, British entertainment entrepreneur Philip Astley developed one of the earliest iterations of the circus. Innovative in its time, it offered a diverse range of live performances by acrobats, clowns, and trick riders – as Astley himself was an equestrian who rode in the show. Just over a century later, America’s famous Barnum & Bailey circus, which inspired the 2017 film The Greatest Showman, also made its debut.

Well into the early 20th century, the circus continued to captivate audiences with magic, spectacle, and extraordinary performers, and as late as the 1920s, when artist Alexander Calder unveiled his Grand Cirque, the circus was still considered an art form worthy of critical review. Recent years, however, have muted circus acts into folly for children: a fun but unserious endeavor.

Alexander Calder, “Tightrope Worker (Woman on Cord),” 1969. Sold for €518,340 via Tajan (June 2018).

Since the emergence of the circus 250 years ago, countless visual artists have drawn inspiration from the excitement, energy, and unusual characters that it attracts. In honor of Astley’s achievements and legacy, a year-long celebration of the history of the circus will take place throughout the United Kingdom in 2018, comprised of performances and special events. Here, we explore 11 artists whose work was inspired by – and transformed our understanding of – the dynamism of the circus.

1. Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721)

Early depictions of Pierrots, and performers from one of the earliest clown troupes, the Italian Commedia dell’arte, appeared in works by Rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau. Watteau is credited by some critics with inspiring many of his followers to explore the relationships between painting and theater. Watteau became known for paintings in the Fete Galante style, which depicted elegantly dressed, often amorous groups of young adults set against greenery. These paintings took inspiration from Watteau’s depictions of the theater, creating almost fantastical realities.

Watteau himself died aged 37, but his oeuvre foreshadowed the works of the Belle Epoque painters that followed over a century later; many of whom also depicted individuals on the fringes of society. Watteau’s work may reveal more about the economic and social climate than is immediately apparent. Art critic Jonathan Jones writes in The Guardian, “These drawings create a perfumed theatre of life that is constantly haunted by dark realities. Look twice at a group of long-haired dandies and they morph into underpaid soldiers, emaciated by hunger and clothed in elegant rags… This purveyor of beauty turns out to be an astute social realist.”

Jean-Antoine Watteau, “Pour nous prouver que cette belle,” 1715-16. Sold with one other work for CHF150 via Koller Auctions (March 2014).

2. Georges Seurat (1859–1891)

It was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the circus came to feature more prominently in the work of visual artists, most notably from practitioners in Belle Epoque France (1871–1914). As the salons brought greater democracy by making art more accessible to the middle classes, artists’ freedom of expression grew.

These social developments heralded the coming of Modernism, and most of the artists who featured circus in their work were also a crucial part of a modernist movement. Fin de siècle, a period of political and cultural transformation in Paris, also boosted circuses and music halls, creating fertile ground for artists looking to document the spectacle. In particular, the Folies Bergere and the Cirque Fernando a popular Parisian cabaret and circus, respectively make repeat appearances in many works from this period.

As the concept of the artist’s philosophy became more prominent during the Modernist era, some critics have drawn parallels between artists themselves and circus performers; each of them complex creatives on the fringes of society. As if to demonstrate this point, Georges Seurat focused his efforts on the circus sideshow, and produced a series in conte crayon and gouache.

“Artists identified with people on the edge of society. The painter trying to sell work that the bourgeoisie wasn’t interested in was like a clown – doing his best to entertain, but not always succeeding. So, circus performers became an equivalent for artists, who treated them almost autobiographically,” says Richard Thomson, professor of fine art at the University of Edinburgh, and guest curator of the 2017 exhibition Seurat’s Circus Sideshow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Georges Seurat, “The Chahut,” 1887-88. Sold for €4,992,750 via Sotheby’s (December 2008).

3. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)

The vibrancy of the circus was a well-suited subject for Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Expressionists alike. Among them, Pierre-Auguste Renoir portrayed circus performers not as characters, but as individuals, such as Acrobats At The Cirque Fernando (Francisca And Angelina Wartenberg). In it, Renoir is said to have depicted the sisters as younger than they actually were to emphasize their perceived innocence and naivety.

Pierre-Auguste-Renoir, “Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg),” 1879. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Edouard Manet (1832–1883)

It was not only the clowns and acrobats at the circus who received the attention of visual artists. In one of Edouard Manet’s last paintings, and one of his most famous, he captures a woman working at the bar of the Folies Bergere, a music hall with circus-like cabaret acts, where many of France’s most important Modernist painters were known to gather. In his work, he captures the loneliness of a woman surrounded by bustling crowds, energy and excitement.

Edouard Manet, “Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère,” 1881. Sold for £16,949,000 via Sotheby’s (June 2015).

5. Fernand Pelez (1841–1913)

Fernand Pelez’s take on the circus went on display in the same year as Seurat’s Circus Sideshow. Pelez identified with his subjects, translating their raw human emotion onto canvas. In his large-scale work, Grimaces et Misère: Les Saltimbanques, Pelez captures performers being paraded on the stage at the entrance to a circus. The performers appear exhausted and defeated; either miserable or bored. The naturalistic scene is filled with color, but the energy is flat.

Fernand Pelez, Grimaces et Misère: Les Saltimbanques,” 1888. Sold for $494,500 via Sotheby’s (May 2011).

6. Edgar Degas (1834–1917)

Other artists depicted the circus to create satire or draw critical allusions to society. Among them was Edgar Degas. On Degas’ Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, Thompson says, “I think [it’s] something of a pun, because by drawing attention to this figure going upwards, it’s like a religious painting of the Ascension. So, it’s a bit of a joke at the expense of pious imagery from the past.”

Edgar Degas, “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando,” 1879. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

7. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901)

Some of the most famous depictions of circus were seen in posters and prints. It is well documented that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec spent his time in cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge, but he also joined his contemporaries at the Folies Bergere and the Cirque Fernando, where he produced sketches for many of his subsequent works and produced a portfolio of lithographs called The Circus.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “At the Circus: Work in the Ring,” 1889. Lithograph (1990) sold with portfolio for $1,900 via RoGallery (June 2011).

8. Jules Cheret (1836–1932)

Alongside Toulouse Lautrec, Jules Cheret was one of the most renowned poster designers of his time. Cheret is said to have invented the modern advertising poster in Art Nouveau style, borrowing from Rococo artists such as Honore Fragonard and Watteau, whose focus on women’s delight Cheret drew inspiration from. Instead, he used flat, graphic colors to create a new visual language. Some say that Cheret drove a new liberation for women by depicting them in dynamic, expressive compositions.

Jules Cheret, “Folies Bergere – Fleur de Lotus,” 1893. Sold for €600 via Primardeco (June 2015).

9. Henri Matisse (1869–1954)

Henri Matisse focused on the circus in his later life, once he himself was less physically fit. His last artist book, Jazz, features a number of circus-themed pieces. Matisse applied his ability to depict movement and vibrancy with a simple cut out to the pieces in Jazzcapturing the motion and energy of the circus with few simple shapes in opaque colors. 

Henri Matisse, “Cirque,” 1947. Sold for $10,000 via Swann Auction Galleries (September 2006).

10. Marc Chagall (1887–1985)

Throughout his body of work, Marc Chagall extensively studied the circus, focused on the color, movement, and energy of the performances. “For me, a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world,” Chagall wrote in 1966. Many of Chagall’s works that focus on other subjects beyond the circus still seem to draw inspiration from the acrobatics the, colors and the creative expression he witnessed at the circus.

Marc Chagall, “Couple au cirque,” 1981. Sold for £266,500 via Christie’s (February 2015).

11. Alexander Calder (1898–1976)

By capturing the imagination of its audiences, the circus has inspired countless imitations. Alexander Calder built an immensely detailed, mechanical sculptural circus when he arrived in France in his late twenties. He transported it in suitcases and used it as a tool to become recognized in the artistic circles; at this time circus was deemed a more serious enterprise than it is today. Featured in a 1955 film by photographer and filmmaker Jean Painlevé (excerpt below), Calder begins by saying that he would have liked to expand his Grand Cirque, but it already takes up five suitcases. 

The circus has evolved in recent years in response to political and social change. With many countries now banning the use of animals in performances, traditional acts of the circus have been replaced by a greater span of new performances. Despite these changes, the thrill of the circus that has inspired so many endures. The 250th anniversary of the circus is championed by such artists as Sir Peter Blake, who collaborated with Circus 250 organizers to develop a cohesive theme to commemorate the year, suggesting there is plenty of interest left among contemporary visual arts.

Image via Circus250.