Divided Distractions

New York

Georges Seurat: Circus Sideshow, 1887–88, oil on canvas, 39¼ by 59 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


CIRCUS SIDESHOW (1887–88) is one of just six large paintings Georges Seurat completed before his death in 1891, at the age of thirty-one. An indispensable instance of Neo-Impressionism, Circus Sideshow is the only one of his major canvases that shows a nocturnal scene. In La Grande Jatte (1884–86), direct sunlight endows green grass with a yellowish, seemingly inward glow. Shaded areas are just as luminous. Despite its air of meticulously managed artifice, this painting carries on the Impressionist project of recording the contingencies of visual perception. By contrast, Circus Sideshow doesn’t record so much as evoke the murky yet radiant atmosphere of a gaslit urban evening.

This spring the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York organized an exhibition—titled “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow”—around this work, placing it at the center of a large selection of paintings by other artists. Neo-Impressionists or not, these painters all had in common a fascination with the fairs and circuses that proliferated in Paris during the nineteenth century. Mounted in the Met’s Robert Lehman Wing, the exhibition offered, on approach, a view of Circus Sideshow in isolation. Visitors saw the rest of the show by descending a staircase and circulating through the Lehman’s underground galleries. Alone on its wall, Circus Sideshow epitomized a familiar ideal: the avant-garde masterpiece so thoroughly in accord with its own principles that it acquires an air of unbreachable self-sufficiency. Intuiting the formal logic of those principles, we seem to join the painting in a timeless realm where nothing counts but an artist’s intentions and the success with which they are realized. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) offers a similar escape from mundane immediacies, as does Matisse’s The Red Studio (1911).

Of course, no painting ever steps free of time and history. The theme of Seurat’s Circus Sideshow allows for myriad connections to art, society, and politics in the Paris of the 1880s—as the curators of the Met exhibition, Richard Thomson and Susan Alyson Stein, demonstrated with a wide array of images and objects. Besides paintings, the show included drawings, prints, posters, illustrated books, a film clip of manic cancan dancers, and a selection of musical instruments. Yet Seurat’s refinement sets Circus Sideshow apart, even from Neo-Impressionist paintings by Paul Signac, Lucien Pissarro, and other practitioners of the style.

The technique is called divisionism (because colors are not mixed on the palette but applied to the canvas separately) or pointillism (after the small points or dots of pigment that constitute a Neo-Impressionist image). The divisionist method was an application of findings published in the 1830s by Michel Eugène Chevreul, chemist and director of the Gobelins tapestry works.1 Chevreul had observed that, for example, red and blue juxtaposed in minute amounts produce a purple more vivid than any that could be blended from red and blue dyes. Transposed to painting, this observation led to the slow pointillist shimmer of Seurat’s Circus Sideshow—and to the very different quality of Signac’s Place de Clichy (1887), a view of a tent and a circus wagon. Here the touches of paint are too large and too widely separated for optical mixing to occur, with results that suggest a deftly improvised mosaic. Though Lucien Pissarro’s pointillism is more finely grained in At the Café-Concert (1888), certain passages tend toward a uniformity of hue that gives vision little to mix. And in Louis Hayet’s Fair at Night (ca. 1888), dots of color become short streaks agitated, perhaps, by the restless energy of the scene. By the end of the 1880s, the Neo-Impressionists were displaying more idiosyncrasy than the Impressionists whose methods they tried to systemize.

In an 1890 issue of the journal Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui, Félix Fénéon implied that Signac was the first Neo-Impressionist.2 Later that year, Seurat wrote the critic a letter claiming “prior paternity.” After giving a list of titles and dates that appear to establish his claim, he presents as further evidence his long familiarity with the color theories of Chevreul and the American physicist Ogden Rood. While still a student, Seurat adds, he read the aesthetician Charles Blanc on Eugène Delacroix’s use of separated hues and was “struck by the intuition of [Claude] Monet and [Camille] Pissarro.” What these Impressionists intuited, Seurat claimed, he carefully analyzed, thus achieving “the purity of the spectral element” that served as “the keystone of my technique.”3


THE YEARNING FOR aesthetic purity had been intensifying on the bohemian fringes of Paris ever since the mid-1830s, when Théophile Gautier railed, in a preface to one of his novels, against the expectation that artists and writers promote the prevailing morality. On the contrary, said Gautier, they must avoid the taint of that and every other public service, for “there is nothing really beautiful,” he insisted, “save what is of no possible use.”4 Two decades later, Charles Baudelaire praised Edgar Allan Poe for exchanging ordinary decencies for the beauty-haunted obsessions of “pure intellect.”5 Writing of the Neo-Impressionists in 1887, Fénéon saw in their paintings not mechanical copies of “externals” but images of “a superior sublimated reality”—a transcendent world that provides a perfected habitat for the artist’s purely aesthetic feelings.6 Early in the twentieth century, the writings of Roger Fry and Clive Bell gave the ideal of “pure art” a fresh infusion of energy, and of course it was revived in the 1960s by Clement Greenberg’s talk of the “purely optical space” he saw in the work of Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and other Color Field painters.7 

The notion of pure art was calculated to isolate painting and poetry from the world of ordinary experience. Corresponding doctrines of individualism claimed to disentangle exceptional selves from our shared humanity. Gustave Courbet fought back against this two-part agenda in 1855 in his “Statement on Realism.” “My aim,” he declared, is “to record the manners, ideas, and aspect of the age as I myself saw them.”8 Painting became reportage, as Courbet, Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, and other Realists replaced elaborately imagined fictions with directly observed facts—the “externals” that Fénéon dismissed so condescendingly. Objective on its surface, Realism had a political point to make: under pressure from industrial innovation and political upheaval, many ordinary people lived difficult lives. One of the Realist painter’s tasks was to find a subject that shone a bright light on their difficulties, which ranged from extreme poverty to something more elusive: the feeling of marginality that came to be known as alienation. Few Parisians were more alienated than those who performed at the city’s circuses and fairs.

Though some fairs evolved from medieval traditions, most sprang from the entrepreneurial impulses that had been reshaping Western economies since the eighteenth century. As industrialization drew workers to the cities, they formed not only a labor force but also an audience for distraction. The bourgeoisie, too, needed entertainment, and that is why we see top hats amid the proletarian bowlers in the crowds that cluster in the foregrounds of so many paintings in “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow.” The sideshow was a popular subject, in part because it guaranteed a look of timeliness. Moreover, it was formally congenial. On a horizontal platform supported by vertical struts, figures of all sizes and shapes struck myriad poses. Musicians played, dancers danced, and clowns contorted themselves while the barker shouted, all in the hope of persuading passersby to purchase tickets to the attractions inside the main tent.

In Le Spleen de Paris (1869), a sequence of short prose pieces, Baudelaire writes of the atmosphere at a Parisian fair: “All the attractions were in fierce competition with each other, bellowing, howling, a pandemonium of shouts, clashing cymbals, trumpets and exploding fireworks.” On the outskirts of the fair, the poet spies “an old acrobat, hunched and decrepit, a ruin of a man leaning against one of the posts of his hut.”9 Other performers are finding audiences. This one is not, and the neglect he suffers reappears, amplified, in the Met exhibition’s assortment of drawings, prints, and paintings by Daumier. Among them is a drawing titled The Saltimbanques Changing Place (ca. 1866–67), a particularly grim image of a family of clowns trudging hopelessly through a city of blank walls and empty windows. The mood turns panicky in Daumier’s pictures of barkers touting fat ladies and strongmen. Drummers beat drums and horn players strain, yet paying customers remain elusive. Tinging his Realism with caricature, soaking it with melancholy, Daumier has done as much as Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911) to sustain the archetype of the sad clown.


CLOWNS CAN EMBODY another archetype—the trickster—as Octave Penguilly L’Haridon reminds us with Sideshow (Parade): Pierrot Presents His Companions Harlequin and Polichinelle to the Crowd (1846). Far from pathetic, each member of Penguilly L’Haridon’s subtly disreputable trio looks quite capable of making his way in a world of shifting guises and subterfuges. No such resourcefulness sustains the characters in Fernand Pelez’s Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques (1888). Twenty feet wide, this was a prime instance not of Realism but of Naturalism, as critics were calling it by then. The new label took some justification from the critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary’s claim that certain painters had adopted “the scientific method of observation”; they had, for polemical purposes, redefined painting as a branch of natural science.10 

As Thomson notes in his catalogue essay, Pelez was indeed an acute observer, alert to such details as the saggy tights of a young and deeply bored performer on the left side of Grimaces and Misery. To the right sit three musicians between performances. Their instruments resting in listless hands, these figures are rendered with a precision that prompted a contemporary critic to offer diagnoses of their various ailments.11 The painting’s center is occupied by this seedy spectacle’s major characters—a histrionic Pierrot, a smug Punchinello, and a dwarf whose face conveys what is often called weary disdain.

The Dickensian flavor of Grimaces and Misery—the Saltimbanques reappears with variations in Léon Dehesghues’s Fair at Neuilly—“Let’s go and see Marseille” (1884), which pictures the sideshow as a crowded splash of brightness in a city of shadows; in Gabriel Boutet’s Fair at Montrouge (1885), a painting focused rather leeringly on a young woman playing a snare drum; and in Jean-François Raffaëlli’s Saltimbanques—The Sideshow Orchestra (ca. 1884), a frieze that shows six musicians exerting themselves at full volume. Rafaëlli’s image made an easy transition from canvas to the pages of a magazine called Paris Illustré, which was exhibited next to it at the Met. Many of the paintings on view in this show had journalistic verve, and as one traversed this exhibition’s vitrines, it was a short step from straightforward illustration to the grotesqueries of the political cartoonists who depicted politicians and other luminaries as clowns and mountebanks on parade.

Wide enough to have the impact of a mural, Pelez’s Grimaces and Misery was a highlight of the Salon of 1888, the same year that Seurat showed Circus Sideshow at the Salon des Indépendants. Establishing Neo-Impressionism as the theoretical and stylistic opposite of Naturalism, Seurat’s painting is populated by ciphers differentiated only by generic traits and accessories. The nearly faceless musicians play their instruments; the barker sports a hairdo of a standard comic kind. These figures fade a bit as one contemplates the minute touches of light and dark that cover the surface of the painting and fill its shallow spaces with infinitely rich ambiguities. As looking continues, the brighter regions of the image acquire a shadowy texture without sacrificing any of their luminosity, and dark zones reveal their surprisingly large complements of high-keyed color. Though Circus Sideshow’s subject never vanishes, its granular flow of hue and tone can, if we are willing, guide us to a point where it is possible to see this painting as a self-referential field of color inflected by schematic forms.


THE BRAINY OFFSPRING of Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism is rightly understood as a means of managing color with a previously unseen precision. Nonetheless, Seurat made a point of noting in his letter to Fénéon that he had absorbed “[Jean-Baptiste-Camille] Corot’s ideas on tone.”12  And Seurat’s command of those ideas is on full view in his conté crayon drawings. Thomson and Stein displayed fifteen of them, enough to demonstrate the versatility of a hand that regimented itself so strictly in the production of full-scale paintings. In Dancer with a Cane (ca. 1888–90), Seurat’s touch has all the jittery energy of his subject, and in The Saltimbanques (ca. 1886), he shows three figures emerging from a hastily laid-on pattern of crosshatching. Usually, though, Seurat’s conté crayon moves over his rough-grained paper with deliberation. 

Dispensing with solid lines, he generates the astonishing subtleties of tone that persuade his subjects to coalesce from the atmosphere peculiar to each drawing. There are four variations on the theme of a chanteuse onstage. She is brightly lit. Dark patches in the foreground are modulated just enough to identify them as the heads of spectators. In the conté crayon study of Circus Sideshow, the silhouette of the central trombone player has a sharp edge—but only from a distance. Up close, this linear effect dissolves into the tonal ambience. In another study, Ferdinand Corvi and Pony (1887–88), the barker, a pony (left out of the final painting), and the man in profile are so infused with light tones that they seem almost to have been breathed onto the paper.

At certain moments, Circus Sideshow and the drawings that preceded it simply look like works of pure art, sui generis and thereby autonomous. Of course, their aura of independence dissipates when we acknowledge their place in the context Thomson and Stein provided with this brilliantly selected exhibition. Yet those moments of “purity” return, owing much of their vividness to our culture’s wish to preserve the autonomous artwork as a symbol of the individual, self-invented and absolutely free.