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George Seurat - The circus / At the gallery

by Alexandra Tuschka

"Manege frei!" the ringmaster seems to have shouted on the right, proudly watching the wild goings-on in his circus. He has just cracked his whip; the horse looks a bit rushed. The artist on it in the yellow fluttering robe gracefully raises her arms - and even a leg - and seems to float on the white horse through the round ring; her foot has hardly any adhesion. Meanwhile, a clown, also in yellow, this time in a full-body costume, can be seen flying behind her. Another clown is arranged behind this one, laughing at the audience. A third can be seen in front as a half-back figure, pulling at the curtain or a scarf. The circus characters are smiling and beaming, but the reaction of the audience is somewhat restrained. The performance is not sold out either, there is still quite a lot of space in the stands; a few musicians accompany the spectacle at the top right. One can quickly see which seats were the most expensive; in front, finely trimmed ladies sit on benches, while above, the common workers lean over the railing and apparently have to stand.

The entire work is arranged warm and yellowish color spectrum. Typical of Seurat's Pointilism or "Neo-Impressionism" are the individual dots of color, which only unite to form a color surface at some distance in front of the painting. With this painting technique, Seurat was innovative at the time and secured art historical relevance. He was of the opinion that mixed colors have less intensity. However, this was not only dedicated to purely artistic interest. Seurat was also interested in the scientific ideas of, for example, Charles Blanc's "Grammaire des arts du dessin" from 1867, who wrote about these mixing effects of colors, as well as Michel-Eugéne Chevreul, who also wrote about the effects of colors and how they influenced each other. Seurat also draws on the theories of Charles Henry about the emotional and symbolic meaning of lines and colors. The emotional impact of the work is superior to the strict perspective. Thus we see the circular manege detail, but stringent horizontal spectator stands.

Inspired by the "spectacle" in the broadest sense were many of the Impressionists. Toulouse-Lautrec made himself the house painter of the Moulin Rouge, and Degas and Renoir also attended large dance events, which they often depicted. The Fernando Circus was located in Montmarte at this time and will have been the source of inspiration for Seurat, who had his studio nearby. It inspired Seurat to create circus themes a total of three times, the Parade in 1887/88 and Le Chahut (The Hiccup) in 1889/90.

"Manege frei!" was then said for the work in 1891, which measures almost 2m in height, in the "Salon de Indépendents", when Seurat exhibited this, still unfinished work. It was to remain his last painting and - although cheerful - it was created under tragic circumstances. Only a few days later he died of diphtheria at the age of only 31. His girlfriend Madeleine Knobloch had just become pregnant again. Only two weeks after Seurat, his son also died.

Artistically inspired, among others, the German painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who, however, took away the lightness of the work. The horse, which is much too large, just fits into the ring, the naked woman looks exposed rather than joyful, and the abstracted forms cause the faces to lose identity. The color choice fell on red, green and black, which solidifies the unsettling mood. Kirchner thus takes the pleasure-seeking of bourgeois society ad absurdum. Whereas in Seurat's work there is an underlying cheerfulness, Kirchner's painting seems heavy and oppressive. The figures here have degenerated into hollow puppets.

George Seurat - The Circus / At the Gallery

Oil on canvas, 1891, 185 x 152.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Circus

Oil on canvas, 1913, 119.8 x 99.8 cm, Pinakothek, Munich


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