1891; Oil on canvas, 73 x 59 1/8 in; unsigned; Musee d'Orsay, Paris
This is beyond any question the most baroque work Seurat ever painted. The unfinished canvas is composed of circles, spirals, and ellipses. Exceptionally, it is built up on horizontals with the entrance to the ring at the right the only vertical break.
Seurat was fond of novels by the Goncourt brothers, and here gives us a visual counterpart to the Freres Zemgano , a tale about the circus. Lucie Cousturier wrote that the composition ``sets itself the aim of holding within one sweeping curve all the upward-running lines denoting circus fun and games.'' The movement from right to left, that of the lady bareback rider who, ``a modern goddess of grace and freedom,'' is doing acrobatics on the white horse, is counterpoised by the movement of the clown in the center with the garish wig, who arises perpendicularly from the foreground.
The figure in the first row of seats, with a silk hat and a peak of hair visible under it, is the painter Charles Angrand, a friend of Seurat's.
This work was exhibited in its unfinished state at the seventh Salon des Independants, from March 20 to April 27, 1891. Seurat died during the exhibition.
The Circus is almost a plagiarism. Robert L. Herbert-who has pointed out similarities between certain of Cheret's posters and Seurat's compositions-proves that the clown is identical (only reversed) with one in a poster by Cheret of 1880, executed for the Spectacle-Promenade de l'Horloge in the Champs-Elysees. (Cheret also was acquainted with the works of Rood and Chevreul.) As for the over-all design, Meyer Schapiro has proved that Seurat took it from an anonymous poster for the Nouveau Cirque, printed in 1888, reversing the horse and the bareback rider. But the drawing in that poster bears no comparison with Seurat's painting-it is heavy, clumsy, the horse moves sluggishly, the rider is ungraceful-whereas in Seurat everything gallops and cavorts.
The layout of this painting almost seems to have been done by some mechanical process, a tracing in blue. That we can even think this is no doubt accounted for by its unfinished state, as Feneon suggested in a letter where he gave it as his opinion that The Circus is finished only ``so far as the background is concerned (rows of spectators merely indicated in blue).''
Seurat painted the flat frame for the painting, and it bears his signiture. Signac, who was able to purchase the picture quite cheaply, noted in his diary: ``Seurat's family, though very well off, is selling everything.''