The circus, a popular show

The circus, a popular show

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Title: The circus.

Author : SEURAT Georges (1859 - 1891)

Creation date : 1891

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 185.5 - Width 152.5

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - C. Jean website

Picture reference: 89EE735 / RF 2511

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - C. Jean

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

This unfinished work appeared at the Salon des Indépendants in 1891, shortly before Seurat's brutal death.

The theme, already addressed by the artist in Circus parade and Heckling, is part of a tradition that goes from Daumier to Picasso, including Degas and Lautrec, and testifies to the enthusiasm for this crowd entertainment. Indeed, born in London at the end of the XVIIIe century, the circus enjoyed its greatest success in Paris in the 1890s.

Image Analysis

The equestrian exercise was the core of the show. It is the heart of Seurat’s work. In the foreground, from behind, stands a red-headed clown, directly inspired by posters of the time, especially those of Jules Chéret. It bears witness to the relationship between painting and the then emerging image society.

In the center, the track is occupied by a rider on a white horse and an acrobat. In the background, the bleachers are punctuated by the frozen silhouettes of spectators whose hats (top hats in the first bleachers and felt caps in the upper bleachers) indicate their social background.

The stability of the vertical and horizontal lines of the background rebalances the curves and diagonals of the foreground. The harmony of the composition - even if it is not guided by the classical perspective: the steps do not follow the track and the horse appears too short on its feet - is based on the theories of Ch. Henry, who analyzes the expression psychological lines. According to this scholar, the composition, which is based on horizontals, gives an impression of calm, while the diagonals suggest the dynamism and gaiety that are evident elsewhere in this work.

The reduced palette is remarkably luminous. Seurat applies Chevreul's theories on the simultaneous contrast of colors: the eye manages to reconstitute a form suggested by the juxtaposition of small touches of pure colors whose rendering is brighter than if they were mixed on the painter's palette. Hence these small dry superimposed dots that give the pigments solidity and shine.
This technique invented by Seurat is called "divisionism" or "pointillism". It is in fact an extension and a scientific systematization of the empirical research of the Impressionists.


The circus testifies to the advent in the XIXe century of a leisure economy linked to the industrial revolution. A popular entertainment culture is thus developing, which is expressed in the massive attendance of gardens, café-concerts, racetracks ...

So many places that inspire modern painters. If Seurat returns three times to the theme of the circus in his painting, it is because it allows him to study movement, rhythm, and colors made shimmering by electric light, the use of which is spreading; a magical place in short, in the heart of the greyness of a city in the process of industrialization.

  • circus
  • Hobbies
  • post-impressionism
  • Art fair
  • Daumier (Honoré)
  • Picasso (Pablo)
  • Degas (Edgar)
  • Toulouse-Lautrec (Henri de)
  • Paris
  • horse


Collective, Catalog of the exhibition at the Grand Palais, Seurat, RMN, Paris, 1991. Collective "Seurat at the Grand Palais" in Art File , April-May 1991.Ségolène LE MEN Seurat et Chéret, the painter, the circus and the poster CNRS Editions, Paris, 1994.Alain CORBIN (dir.) The advent of leisure Paris, Aubier, 1995. Pascal JACOB The Great Circus Parade Paris, Gallimard, 2001 Dominique KALIFA Mass culture in France 1. 1860-1930 Paris, La Découverte, coll. "Landmarks", No. 323, 2001.

To cite this article

Nadine FATTOUH-MALVAUD, "The circus, a popular show"