The French Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat’s stature and popularity rest on a relatively small body of work. During a career that spanned just seven years, the artist only completed five practically wall-sized canvases and another somewhat smaller painting, a group of harbor scenes, lots of oil studies, and hundreds of conté crayon drawings. The tall, bearded workaholic died of a respiratory infection in 1891 at the age of 31 in Paris.
Once you’ve been smitten by the work of Seurat, you hardly ever fall out of love with it. It operates on several levels simultaneously, each one appealing to different stages of your own life experiences. If you were lucky enough to first see his paintings when you were a child, as I was when I was 7, you might have been intrigued by, say, the figures strolling and sitting in a park or enjoying the sun and water alongside the banks of the Seine or models disrobing who will pose nude in the artist’s studio.
Later on, you probably would have learned more about the artist’s Pointillist technique, the way he applied dots of pure, complementary colors in order to create a vibrant, scintillating picture. At another point, you would have discovered that, along with Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh, Seurat has been considered one of the founding fathers of modern art. And then, there’s the way he carefully chose the subject matter of his six major works. A native of Paris, having been born there in 1859, he portrayed his hometown in two outdoor scenes, a brightly lit interior, a nocturne, and two views of public entertainments mid-performance.
Seurat’s Circus Sideshow (Parade de Cirque), executed in 1887–88, is the subject of a superb “In Context” exhibition currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The entrancing night view, which entered the Met’s collection in 1961 from the Stephen C. Clark bequest, is accompanied by three conté crayon studies for the work, several café-concert drawings that were on display with Circus Sideshow at the fourth Salon des Independants in 1888, a study for his Models (1886–88) that is standing in for the large version that was also at the 1888 Salon (the Barnes in Philadelphia owns it), and other related works on paper by Seurat. Back in the day, these signature works would have been the principal focus of a show like this.
Things are different now. What was once considered filler is taken much more seriously these days. That is not a problem when it comes to the sequence of paintings by Neo-Impressionists whose subjects are fairgrounds and café-concerts. Nor, for that matter, with the caricatures of performers by the great Honoré Daumier, dating from the 1860s and even earlier, as well as later works treated more expressionistically by Georges Rouault, Maurice Prendergast, and Pablo Picasso. (And I, for one, wish guest curator Richard Thomson, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, had included Picasso’s costume and set designs for the Ballet Russes production of Parade, which premiered in May 1917.) But take Fernand Pelez’s contemporaneous Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques, of 1888, as a prime example. Like Seurat, he portrayed fairgrounds with a somewhat similar cast of characters. Stretching more than 20 feet in length and garishly colored, it’s loud, abrasive, and hits you over your head as it delivers its obvious message. At least the other realist paintings temporarily on view in the Lehman Collection Wing are more modest. As for the ephemera, that’s exactly what it is: illustrated books and journals, posters, postcards, and an earthenware plate.
At the present moment, many commentators enjoy downplaying the genius theory of art. One work of art, they claim, is just as good as another. Ha! This exhibition provides a better appreciation of what it means to make art that’s great, good, bad, and god-awful.
As in his other major works, Seurat was portraying an actual place in Circus Sideshow (Parade de Cirque): the theatre-cirque directed by Ferdinand Corvi. Every year, just after Easter Sunday, for three weeks, Thomson informs us, the Corvi Circus visited an area in Paris known as the Gingerbread Fair, near present day Place de la Nation.
When he painted the work, Seurat depicted four figures and a fifth cropped character playing instruments, a buffoon-like fellow (a young one, we are told), and Corvi, the ringmaster, all gathered on a platform in front of the entrance to the Big Top. The crowd that these variously costumed men are trying to entice into forking over a few centimes stands on the ground below, their backs to viewers. Some are rapt in conversations. A sequence of nine gas lamps perched above the temporary stage illuminates the scene; another five circular discs add additional light. The figures occupying the higher back plane—and closer to the gas lamps—are better lit than the general populace who are further away and closer to the surface. And the tops of two pronounced horizontals—the guardrail and the platform on which the trombonist stands—are, as they would have been in life, more in the spotlight than any other detail. Magically, Seurat has managed to let us feel as if we are looking through a hazy atmosphere. While everything seems frozen in time, we somehow hear the music, the crowd, the noise of passersby whom we don’t even see.
Thomson suggests that this is probably Seurat’s smallest major opus because he didn’t have enough time to complete a larger wall-sized canvas in time for display at the Salon des Independants of 1888. I wonder. It’s miraculous that he packed so much into this scene. It’s one of those works of art you can call perfect. Go see for yourself.