By Phyllis Lam, Contributing Writer
During the 19th century in France, musicians and other performers — such as clowns, female acrobats, animals and ringmasters — would perform for crowds gathering outside of the circus tent in sideshows. This ancient tradition of the sideshow is the focus of Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat’s new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque).” Along the corridors of the Robert Lehman Wing, visitors view a wide range of documentary materials — political illustrations, posters, related works by Seurat and his contemporaries and musical instruments — before viewing the centerpiece of the show.
“Circus Sideshow” was created against a backdrop of political and social change in 19th century France. Neo-Impressionists favored the theme of circus sideshows in their paintings, a common form of urban entertainment that captured contemporary Parisian nightlife. Seurat’s painting was the first to illustrate the sideshow at night. In his work, a trombonist takes center stage while a band of cornet players stand behind him. The audience gaze upward to view the performance from the rear of the stage. Another crowd on the right stands in line to buy tickets.
Using the signature pointillism technique he developed with Neo-Impressionist master Paul Signac, Seurat covered the canvas with tiny dots of colors that blend into colorful patches to depict light and darkness.
Sideshows were rowdy scenes of low-brow entertainment during Seurat’s day. But in his painting, viewers see a muted, pictorial harmony through his use of a soft palette. Subtle hues of blue, red, purple and green make up silhouettes of the audience at the bottom of the painting. Parallel arrangements run through the piece, where musicians and the row of gaslight on top are evenly-spaced and lined up in a regular fashion. A flat backdrop further renders the subjects of the painting as almost two-dimensional.
This exhibition also presents a series of lithographs and gouache prints that were employed for social commentary. The famous Honore Daumier, for instance, designed caricature images of important cultural figures like Victor Hugo while J. J. Grandville attacked the political chicanery that plagued France during the rule of its last king, Louis-Philippe d’Orleans, from 1830 to 1848, the Second Republic from 1848 to 1851 and the Second Empire from 1852 to 1870.
Banking on its power to attract and stir up the crowd, sideshows became popular motifs used in caricatures to mock politicians. Like street entertainers, or “saltimbanques,” politicians flaunted their charm and delivered stump speeches to amass supporters. The double meaning of sideshows reminds us that art does not always exist in vacuum, but reflects the societal and political circumstances of its time.
“Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” is on view at the Met Fifth Ave through May 29. Museum admission is pay-as-you-wish.
Email Phyllis Lam at email@example.com.