By the early 1950s, the circus had come to dominate Fernand Léger’s oeuvre. A spectacular folio of 34 color and 29 black and white lithographs by the artist titled Le Cirque was published in 1950, thus creating an anthology of Léger’s exploration of the theme. The present large-scale study, painted in 1952, features intertwined figures performing awe-inspiring acrobatic feats on stage in Léger’s signature, linear and decorative style of his late career. Through its monochromatism, the artist has intentionally removed all color from the composition. Léger would move toward the eventual decision to substitute local color with broad stokes of pure, primary and secondary color, unbound to the outlining contours constructed by the artist’s brush. This ink study is closely related to the crowning work of the artist’s late career, La grande parade, état définitif, in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The monumental canvas sums up his life-long artistic pursuit of depicting men and women at leisure, existing in a joyous state of freedom and play. Both works feature Léger’s emblematic, tubist approach to depicting the human-form and balance of the dynamic and static. In each, similar characters take the stage, including a pair of dancing girls accompanied by a clown playing the banjo alongside a set of acrobats balancing delicately on horseback. Léger routinely returned to the circus motif as his fascination with this marvelous world served to present infinite artistic possibilities. The circus had come to represent much more than an entertaining display in post-war France, and transformed into an expression of the notion of joie de vivre. Many artists, including Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, visited this subject continuously, favoring the inviting and egalitarian environment which had made culture and the performing arts accessible to all classes. Léger intended for his circus compositions to embody the thematic quality and experience of a society at leisure and the nostalgic play of the bourgeoisie. Léger described his vision of the scene: “Furious music suddenly erupts and overwhelms the noises of the crowd. The collective march moves toward a goal: the circus parade. It begins. The gate money is tied to this parade, so it is persuasive and dynamic. The instruments are making as much noise as they can. All this hullabaloo is projected from a raised platform. It hits you right in the face, right in the chest. It's like a magic spell. Behind, beside, in front, appearing and disappearing—faces, limbs, dancers, clowns, scarlet throats, pink legs and that music associated with the glare of the spotlights that sweeps over the whole, aggressive bunch, that makes all those white faces with staring eyes approach, become caught, and climb the steps that lead them to the ticket booth. 'Hand us the cash!' They keep coming in and always will. They scramble in until the tent is ready to burst. People are turned away. The parade has won” (quoted in F. Léger, The Functions of Painting, New York, pp. 175-176).
Gouaches from the La Grande Parade series are held in several celebrated collections including the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, the Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot, and the Collection Aimé Maeght, Paris.