Au cirque: "Clown" is one of the first group of circus paintings, comprising a half-dozen works, that Lautrec executed in 1886-1888, as he sought to declare his independence as an artist by featuring themes drawn from contemporary life. These paintings, together with his dance hall scenes, also mark Lautrec's interest in creating lively, multi-figure compositions. Following the example of Degas, he employed unusual ways of arranging his subjects asymmetrically, and cropped the scenes to evoke the animated movement of life and entertainment in the city as seen on the quick.
Lautrec frequented the Cirque Fernando at the corner of Rue des Martyrs and Boulevard de Rochefort in Montmartre. The troupe was directed by Ferdinand Beert, who featured the usual clowns, acrobats, aerialists and trained horses, but also introduced more novel acts, such a revue that featured the popular dance hall diva La Goulue, whom Lautrec depicted in numerous works. Beert's star clown was Jérôme Médrano, who took over the circus in 1912 and renamed it after himself, making it one the most popular spectacles in the capital.
With its tall narrow format, Au cirque: "Clown" is the most radical of this series, and points to Lautrec's ultimate intention, that of creating a wall-size decorative mural that might serve as a backdrop for performances at the Cirque Fernando. The artist worked on the large painting, but then abandoned it; it is presumed lost, and is known only from a small portion of it seen in photograph taken circa 1890, showing Lautrec at work in his studio. The subject of the mural was essentially the same as is seen in the present painting. The equestrienne and her mount have just jumped through a large paper hoop, held here by the clown at the lower edge, as the ringmaster Loyal, another clown and a boy or midget "ringmaster" look on with satisfaction. Lautrec has blurred the focus of the audience in the grandstand to create the effect that a spectator's eye would see as it follows the moving horse and rider against a stationary background.
Charles F. Stuckey has written about the present painting, "Evidently Lautrec considered a variety of formats within which to arrange his figures, and this tall narrow painting investigates a stacked organization of details. Lautrec, who must have been fond of the vertical format used for Chinese scroll paintings, conceived several important works along similar proportions [e.g., Danseuse, Dortu, no. P. 612; sold Christie's, New York, 7 May 2002, lot 25]" (in exh. cat., op. cit., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1979, p. 131). The influence of Japanese prints, with their high vantage point and flattened space, is also apparent.
Lautrec executed Au Cirque Fernando, l'écuyère (fig.1), the largest and best-known of the extent pictures in this early circus series, using a more conventional, broad rectangular format. Monsieur Loyal is again seen wielding the ringmaster's whip. Suzanne Valadon, a model whom Lautrec had known since 1882, posed for the equestrienne in these pictures. Lautrec had an affair with her, which lasted intermittently from about 1887 to 1890. Mlle.Valadon later became a successful painter, had a liaison with the composer Erik Satie, among many others, and was the mother of the artist Maurice Utrillo.
This painting was acquired by the family of the present owner from the Collection of Ernest Le Véel in 1917. The Le Véel Collection was well known in Paris for the quality of its Japanese prints which Le Véel particularly admired and whose influence is reflected in compositions such as Au Cirque: "Clown".
(fig. 1) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Au Cirque Fernando, l'écuyère, 1887-1888. The Art Institute of Chicago. BARCODE 23657694