In the previous article, I looked at the spectacle of the circus, as seen mainly during the late nineteenth century. Even in circuses which worked year-round in their own permanent buildings, performers were notoriously itinerant. And in those circuses which travelled around and operated under tentage, the life of performers was often little different from that of a vagrant. This inspired a few artists to look beyond the glitter and gasps of amazement, at individual performers, and those who worked in circuses.
In 1879, Degas embarked on one of his major works, concerned entirely with one woman, the Cirque Fernando performer Miss La La (or Lala), who startled audiences by her aerial act, suspended only by her teeth. Even given free access to her rehearsals, this was a formidable challenge, and for once we have good insight into how he tackled this. He started with a series of drawings, looking at different views and compositional possibilities.
He then refined those into what I believe was his first pastel sketch of Miss Lala at the Fernando Circus (1879), now in the Getty. He has squared it up with a pencil to make the image easier to transfer to his next study.
This later version of Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando (1879), now in the Tate, makes small adjustments, such as bringing her right leg round more, as if her hips had been rotated, and adds some background.
In the final version, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879), painted in oils and now in London’s National Gallery, Degas has changed his mind about her legs, rotated her hips the other way, and drawn her feet higher up behind her.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was another of the French Impressionists who painted the Cirque Fernando, and in the same year he completed Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando, which shows the sisters Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg in the ring during a performance.
Ludwig Knaus shows the scene Behind the Curtain of a smaller itinerant show in 1880. Performers were often colourful in both their costume and character, with many incongruities – such as the clown seen in the centre feeding a baby, and looking straight at the viewer.
What happened In the Wings at the Circus, the subject of this painting from about 1887 by Toulouse-Lautrec, often wasn’t intended for the public. Animal and human cruelty were common, and circus owners were often only interested in making money, and cared not for their human or animal performers.
Georges Seurat’s earlier, and less well-known, painting of a circus showed not the action in the ring, but a sideshow of ill-paid musicians, in Parade de cirque (Circus Sideshow) from 1887-88.
Then in 1888, Fernand Pelez exhibited at the Salon his most ambitious work: a vast five-section canvas over six metres (twenty feet) in length, showing the reality of life as an acrobat. This currently exists in two versions: one roughly half that size and less finished in parts, and the work exhibited, which is in the Petit Palais in Paris.
Above is the smaller version, and below the full-sized one.
Grimaces et misères: les Saltimbanques (Grimaces and Miseries: the Acrobats) follows the pattern of a traditional ‘ages of man’ image, in which the figures increase in stature from the start at the left edge, to the centre, then diminish again with advancing years, to the right. Les Saltimbanques had been a successful show in the theatre fifty years earlier, and had lived on in entertainments staged in fairs and circuses around France. Contemporary performers attested to the faithfulness and accuracy of Pelez’s painting.
Rosenblum summarises the painting as presenting “a glum view of the contrast between the goals of rousing entertainment in a popular Parisian circus troupe and the actual melancholy and isolation of the performers.”
Les Saltimbanques was featured and illustrated in the French weekly magazine l’Illustration, which also identified many of Pelez’s models, who were performers in fairs and circuses.
Toulouse-Lautrec captured similar distress in his lithograph of La Clownesse assise, a seated Clown, from 1896. Making people laugh doesn’t necessarily make your lifestyle happy at all. By this time, Cirque Fernando was in financial distress, and shortly went bankrupt.
Some of Charles Demuth’s early Precisionist works were drawn from entertainment, here The Circus from 1917.
Vilmos Aba-Novák, the first major modern painter in Hungary, made a series of works looking at the lives of Circus Performers, from about 1930. Here they are clustered around the caravans in which they lived.
Aba-Novák’s later Before the Show from 1934 shows another eclectic mixture of horsewomen, ringmaster, and ‘midgets’ waiting to enter the ring.
My final painting of the backstage of a circus is Lorenzo Aguirre’s Clowns from 1934, with three performers sharing a cramped dressing-room, their costumes draped over the suitcases with which they travelled. It was a strange and unsettling life.