Executed in 1897, Au cirque comes from a seminal phase in Bonnard's work. The graphic linearism and daring use of chromatic harmonies are typical of Bonnard's best Nabi paintings.
The performing stage had been at the centre of several compositions since 1890, when he met and befriended André Antoine, founder of the Théâtre Libre, and Paul Fort, who opened the avant garde Théâtre de l'Art. The polychromatic extravaganza and sheer dynamism of the shows fueled Bonnard's radical perspective, where actors and dancers were stylised into mere harmonies of line and light (fig. 1). It is likely that the setting for the present oil is the Cirque Fernando which was located on the rue des Martyrs in Montmartre. It had been transformed in 1875 from a wood and tarpaulin structure into a successful permanent theatre by its proprietor, the bareback rider Ferdinand Beert (alias Fernando), who had devised a varied program, featuring the celebrated clown Medrano alongside equestrian performances. Toulouse-Lautrec was also entranced by the Wednesday's 'soires du high-life' at the Cirque Fernando, and paid homage to the prowess of the seductive écuyère in a series of oils and pastels of the late 1880s.
While Bonnard was clearly interested in the spectacle of the circus, he also enjoyed the compositional challenges which the oval shape of the circus ring set him. In the present picture the horse is obviously the central focal point but Bonnard is also fascinated with the flat perspective of the picture. In addition, he creates an elaborately patterned backdrop using the strong lines of the ringside seats and the spectators in their top hats and colored bonnets. To create a sense of foreground and distance from the spectacle, Bonnard also bisects the composition with the vertical tent-post which runs down the right-hand edge of the painting, a technique he has borrowed from the Japanese prints of Utamaro and Hiroshige.
(fig. 1) Pierre Bonnard, Danseuses, 1896. Private collection.