Like Daumier, Degas, Renoir, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec before him, and his contemporaries Picasso, Chagall, Léger and Van Dongen, Rouault made the circus a significant theme in his painting, which he featured from early to late in his career. The circus mingled the excitement of modern spectacle with very old and traditional popular arts of physical daring and agility. To observe the spine-tingling feats of an acrobat, a trapeze artist or horseback rider is not unlike participating in an ancient cathartic rite. Circus people have always attracted poetic sentiments to their lives, and because they seem to exist outside of time, and blithely resist the compromising enticements and encroachments of modern living, the example of their lives easily fosters a rapturous, nostalgic desire for a simpler, more childlike existence.
It was as a child, naturally, that Rouault fell in love with the circus, and as a young painter living in Montmartre, before moving to Versailles in 1912, he frequently attended the local Cirque Médrano. Previously known as the Cirque Fernando, the troupe was the favorite of the Impressionists; it was taken over by its star clown Médrano in 1897. Like Picasso, however, Rouault was actually more interested in the small traveling circuses of free spirits, the cirques forains, true bohemian and gypsy clans which traveled from city to city and eked out a living by performing in neighborhood lots. In a 1905 letter to his friend Edouard Schuré, Rouault described a "nomad caravan, parked by a roadside, the old horse grazing on the meager grass, the old clown sitting in a corner of his caravan in the process of mending his sparkling and gaudy costume, this contrast of brilliant and scintillating objects, made to amuse, and a life of infinite sadness" (quoted in B. Dorival and I. Rouault, op. cit., vol. I, p. 40).
Circus subjects in Rouault's oeuvre provided a profane and worldly counterbalance to the sacred subjects into which he, as the profoundly feeling man of sorrows, poured his strong Christian faith. Indeed, circus people are as numerous in his work as religious subjects, and often the two worlds appear to merge or overlap in metaphorical crossover characters: Pierrot becomes a Christ-like figure, a fillette de cirque his Mary Magdalene. During the years before the First World War, Rouault dealt mainly with clowns and wrestlers in his circus pictures. He exercised a broader approach in later works, featuring female performers as often as men, and produced abundant outpourings of circus scenes during each decade prior to and during the Second World War. He published three celebrated collections of prints: Cirque, 1931, and Le Cirque de l'étoile filante, 1938, for Ambroise Vollard, and Divertissement, which Tériàde published in 1943.
In nearly all of his circus paintings and prints Rouault depicts one or two, sometimes three performers seen close-up, filling the picture, in which his emphasis is either on the character, interaction and emotional expression of his subjects or simply the impressive physicality of their athletic figures. The present Le Cirque is a rare instance in which Rouault has taken a more distant point-of-view, standing back far enough to take in a fuller measure of the spectacle that is unfolding before him. This raucous scene resembles a drunken carnival; the ringside gallery of patrons is restless and unruly, while uniformed attendants stand idly by. Amid this tumult, Pierrot stands front and center, as a circus girl writhes in an abandoned dance at his side. This scene conjures up Nebuchadnezzar's feast, madness in Herod's palace, or a Bacchic orgy in Nero's Domus Aurea. The man in the white clown costume, who stands apart, arms akimbo, pondering his next move, is perhaps the artist himself. Like Pierrot, he has found himself in absurd and menacing circumstances--it was then 1942, the darkest year of the Second World War in occupied France, in a world turned upside down.