Paris Circus

Belle Époque Paris was enamored with the circus. At one point there were four permanent circuses in the city, several hippodromes, and other venues that featured circus acts. Artists enjoyed the allure of the circus too. This week we’ll look at how Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Georges Seurat, and James Tissot captured the spectacle, the daring, and the thrill of the circuses of Paris.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas - Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando - 1879 National Gallery of Art, London

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando Edgar Degas

The Cirque Fernando opened in 1875. It was the only circus located in Montmartre. Because of its location it became a favorite for many artists. Miss La La was a well known performer. She would perform feats of strength, 20 meters in the air, suspended by a rope she held on to using just her teeth. To research the painting, Degas went to see Miss La La perform four times, and invited her to his studio. This is Degas’ only circus painting.

Edouard Manet - A Bar at the Folies-Bergère - 1882 Courtauld Galleries, Somerset House

A Bar at the Folie-Bergere Edouard Manet

In the 1870s the Follies-Bergère went from staging Operas to performing vaudeville. This new milieu was a mix of acrobatics, animals, and sideshow characters. In Manet’s reality bending bar scene we only see the venue through a mirror. Most of the background is taken up by the audience, but If you look in the top left corner of the painting you will see a trapeze artist’s legs.

James Tissot - Women of Paris Series

Ladies of the Chariot James Tissot

James Tissot had just returned to the French capital after spending eleven years in London. He painted the fifteen canvases of his “Women of Paris” series to reestablish his career. The series flopped. It did give us t images of very different Belle Époque entertainments. The Hippodrome Pont d’Alma had as much in common with the circuses of ancient Rome, as the modern day circus. The wondrous steel and glass structure could hold 10,000 spectators. An evening out was a feast of entertainments. The program’s highlight was a frenzied chariot race by female charioteers.

The Circus Lover by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

By just looking at “The Circus Lover,” you might be able to guess what made the Cirque Molier unique. Check out the acrobat on the trapeze, the one sporting a monocle. He is most likely the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. Like everyone attending, and performing at Ernest Molier’s circus he was part of the social elite. As you look around the painting, you
notice most people are looking somewhere other than the center ring. Everyone wants to be noticed, maybe even more than they want to be entertained.

Georges Seurat - The Circus - 1891 Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The Circus Georges Seurat

Let’s head back to Pigalle, and Cirque Fernando. This is Georges Seurat’s final painting, it was left unfinished. Seurat created a very stylized look. Every performer is distinct, and contained, but together they form a visual loop that your eye instinctively follows around the painting.

Pablo Picasso - Family of Saltimbanques - 1905 National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Piccaso

By the time Picasso came to Paris, the Cirque Fernando had closed, and the Cirque Médrano had opened into its old digs. At times, Picasso would go to the circus three or four nights a week. When the performance ended, he would hang out with the Saltimbanques. A lot of these traveling performers were Spanish, so Picasso probably felt a strong kinship with them. Picasso often painted himself as a harlequin, and some believe this painting is a self-portrait too. This melancholy work is considered the highlight of Picasso’s Rose Period. 

These are just a few of the artists who captured the rich history of the circus in Belle Époque Paris. Do you have a favorite?

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Kristin Johnson

I love art, and writing. One is deeply personal, the other helped me get my BA in journalism from IU. I am passionate about storytelling. My greatest professional compliment came from a business owner who said, “Your profile piece captured everything I believe about my business.”
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