Trembling with blazing colours, Au Cirque Médrano conveys the happy haziness of a vivid memory. Painted around 1950, the painting revives a subject that had first concerned Van Dongen around 1905-1907, as he set out to portray one of the most prominent and fascinating circuses in Paris in a series of works. The Cirque Medrano, at first named Cirque Fernando, was situated at the core of Montmartre, a neighbourhood at the edge of Paris already renown for its music-hall, lascivious bars and bohemian characters. The small scale of the Cirque Medrano allowed for an atmosphere of intimacy between spectators and performers, which encouraged many avant-garde artists to portray its people and scenes: like Van Dongen, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and George Seurat were also enticed to capture the fleeting spectacle of this magical and beloved flamboyant world.
Depicting an acrobat performing upon a horse at the centre of the arena, the painting captures the audience's excitement through a series of quick, colourful brushstrokes, focussing its attention on the performer through an intense red shadow, which embraces the girl's body, augmenting the suspense of the action. In its composition, Au Cirque Médrano is very close to an oil sketch Van Dongen executed around 1905-07, representing a similar subject: returning to the subject almost fifty years later, Van Dongen seems to have filled the gap of that first work with the enthusiastic colours and glittering atmosphere of his memories, embedding into the painting the charm of a nostalgic souvenir.
This work will be included in the forthcoming Kees van Dongen catalogue critique of paintings and drawings being prepared by Jacques Chalom Des Cordes under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.