Seurat began to work on Cirque (de Hauke no. 213; coll. Muse d'Orsay, Paris), his last painting, in 1890. Although he did not complete it, it was finished enough for the artist to exhibit it in the seventh exhibition of the Socit des Independants at the Pavilion de la Ville de Paris in March-April, 1891. The painting met with much criticism. Many felt that Seurat had adhered too rigorously to his complex theories of color and composition. Alphonse Germain complained that "the figures in Cirque, presented geometrically (especially the yellow clown) have the stiffness of automatons" (quoted in A. Distel, "Cirque", Georges Seurat 1859-1891, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1991, p. 360). Seurat was disappointed at the reception given his painting, but whether he would have reworked it or how he would complete it can only remain speculation, as he fell ill with what was probably malignant diptheria, and died on 29 March 1891, aged only thirty-one.
The present work is one of only six documented studies for Cirque. It is evidence of Seurat's maturing technique that he was producing fewer preparatory studies for his paintings, compared with the many drawings that mark the evolution of La Baignade Asnire or La Grande Jatte. This drawing depicts part of the clown as shown in the final painting; the image is cropped at the subject's right-hand shoulder, and it is possible that the sheet is a fragment of a larger full study for the painting.
The use of the grid in this drawing, which also underlies the oil painting, has been a source of mystery. Despite this constructive framework, the figures in the painting move very freely, and the architectural elements of the composition do not synchronize with it. Prior to the 1991 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, efforts were made to align the grid in the present study with that in the painting. Although the size of the clown's head in the drawing corresponds to that in the painting, the ruled construction lines fail to align properly, and certain elements of the clown's contours do not superimpose precisely on those of the painting. Seurat very likely moved between these few studies and the painting with a greater sense of freedom and assurance than in previous large works.
The figure of the clown is pivotal in the conception and composition of Cirque. Two of the other five extent studies for the painting refer to the clown. De Hauke no. 712 has been called Seurat's last drawing, but actually depicts an earlier pose of the clown, in which his back is completely turned to the viewer. In the painting, the clown stands at the threshold of the scene; with wand in one hand, pulling aside a curtain with the other, he appears to conjure up the spectacle before us. Anne Distel wondered if the clown was "a metaphor... for the artist's role as revealer of society's mechanism..." (ibid. pp. 361-362). One may consider this circus theme, drawn from a tradition as ancient as the medieval jongleur or saltimbanque and set in the modern dress of scientific color theory and calculated compositional design, as an allegory for the state of art itself, with the clown as a stand-in for the artist. This artist is indeed a jester, a master of artifice, mixing humor and truth. The great success of Cirque is the mastery that Seurat displays in overcoming the contradictions inherent in his art, by transcending the limitations of his Apollonian and theoretical approach to art, and at the same time transfiguring the Dionysian character of his subject.
Seurat himself never commented on interpretations of his work; he addressed only formal issues. Indeed, the manifold formal ideas which underly Cirque have certainly contributed to its status as an icon of modern art, and it has had powerful influence on the subsequent development of twentieth century painting. Analytical Cubism takes from Cirque its use of flattened pictorial space and the stacking of planar elements within it. Art Nouveau was indebted to Seurat's use of unifying arabesques. Futurism looked to Cirque as the beginning of the painterly depiction of figures in radically dynamic motion. Delaunay's Orphist theories took as their starting point Seurat's practice of using pure, divided color. Seurat's emphatic use of opposing horizontal and vertical lines in his compositional framework was influential on Mondrian and other proponents of Die Stijl. Kandinsky viewed Seurat's Neo-Impressionism as a precursor to abstract art, and in this regard the importance of Cirque has not diminished to this day.
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Cirque, Muse d'Orsay, Paris