Georges Seurat painted his first masterpiece, Bathers at Asnières, in 1884. He painted what proved to be his last masterpiece, Le Cirque, in 1891. The intervening years saw a garbling of the taxonomy of French painting. We call it “Neo-Impressionism” thanks to the term’s 1886 coinage by the astute Félix Fénéon, but the actual workings of the movement entailed several competing arguments about the future of art. Pointillists were getting into spats with Cloisonnists. Symbolists crossed rhetorical swords with Naturalists. Soon after, the Nabis arrived on the scene. One might have been tempted to call it a circus.
The curious thing about Pointillism is how little talent it enabled. Remove Seurat and you’re left with figures like Henri-Edmond Cross and Charles Angrand—fine painters, but neither of whom gave us anything to compare with La Grande Jatte. Major artists, Camille Pissarro and Pablo Picasso included, gave the style a go before they eventually threw their hands up and returned to techniques that don’t require sitting in front of a canvas for long hours with one’s hand in a controlled tremor. That was the end of it as far as the history books are concerned, unless someone wants to try to connect it to Yayoi Kusama.
It may be that you had to be Seurat to get everything that one could get out of Pointillism: scientific of mind and uninterested in debate. Most of his friends were traveling with political anarchism, for which he seems to have had no time. Quite a few of those friends were able and passionate critics, chiefly Paul Signac, who back then was publishing under the pseudonym “Néo” and trading critical fire with Angrand and others. To this dialogue Seurat lent not a word. “He’s mute,” said Pissarro about him to Signac. Peter Schjeldahl once remarked that geniuses have the fewest moving parts. It’s easy to imagine Seurat as such a type, head down, adjusting the dots. He knew of the studies of Ogden Rood, the physicist who first proposed the notion of optical blending. He met Charles Henry, the author of Introduction to a Scientific Aesthetics (1885). Clearly his muses told him to stay quiet and put the new knowledge to use.
One of his bolder experiments was to take a new technique developed to render daylighted landscapes and apply it to a nocturne. The result was Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), around which the Metropolitan Museum of Art has now built an exhibition of related works by Seurat and many others titled “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow.” “Sideshow” is a good-enough rendering of “parade,” but to be precise, the word refers to the tradition of French circuses of putting an act out in front of the tent in order to draw in an audience. (Carnival barking is a related tradition.) It had to be loud and enticing, hence the repeated motifs of brass horns, bass drums, greasepainted buffoons, and mountainous decolletage in its depictions.
Having done exactly this work, as a greasepainted buffoon, I can attest that it is not all gaiety. But for me it was just a summer job, albeit the kind that prompts a fellow to consider graduate school. Living it full-time is hard. Circuses have been marked by rootlessness, loneliness, freakishness, and supplication since they first started crossing the landscape in the Middle Ages. The notion of the sad clown, whose makeup is his only smile, is ancient. But a liberated press and a rising bourgeois class under the Third Republic conspired to put the parade into modern consciousness in a new way. Circuses grew more popular than ever, in actuality and metaphor. La Caricature ran a New Year’s feature, preserved by Northwestern University and on display in the Met exhibition, which pillories the prior year. The raucous comic is entitled “1879! Grand Sideshow with Beating Tom-Toms, Animal Screeches, and various Music,” and in lavish detail it lampoons everything from the nascent pro-divorce movement to British military ineptitude. At the center of the scene is an enormous poster featuring the buxom “Nana, la belle naturalisse,” a dig at the Zola novel and its literary naturalism.
But much of the rest of the show is marked by tragedy, in keeping with the standard connotations of the subject. Saltimbanques (1887), an Émile Bernard drawing, shows a drum-beating clown trying in vain to draw a nearby crowd as his hapless colleagues, maybe his family, look forlornly at the ground. Death taps its bony finger on the shoulder of a portly gentleman in a crowd attending an outdoor fair in a brooding intaglio by Marcel Roux. But for morosity, nothing in the exhibition compares to Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques (1888), twenty feet of sheer despair by the painter Fernand Pelez. On the right, three hoary, half-conscious musicians await the cue to hoist their instruments and empty their slumped chests into them. A chained monkey sits over them, as if to summarize their state. On the left, four female figures trace a woman’s squalid life in show business, from worried sister (she looks upon an exhausted, knob-kneed boy beside her), to eye-rolling tween, to beset adolescent, to matron scowling from behind the scenes. The last one’s scowl is permanent. In the middle, a harlequin sings, his mouth agape with sound, his eyes distracted off-scene. A dwarf sizes up us viewers as if for a mugging. Only a red-faced (drunk?) ringleader seems pleased with the proceedings. Pelez masterfully sustained the realism throughout its whole length, doubling down on the physical and emotional dilapidation in the picture as though he were turning thumbscrews.
Parade de cirque portrays the same subject, but through an entirely different exercise. Seurat may have been trying to surpass a particular work of Angrand, An Accident (1887), a striking Pointillist night scene of a crowd gathered in front of a drugstore around an unseen victim. Intentionally or not, surpass it he did. “Hieratic” gets thrown around a lot in regard to Seurat’s work, but Parade really does recall the friezes at Karnak. The difficulty of reading particulars into the reductive forms only increases their psychological intensity. A group of bowler-hatted musicians, distinguishable only by their instruments, line up like candlepins. We know the identity of the man at the right, strutting like Mick Jagger—he’s Corvi of the Corvi Circus, for which there are handsome posters on view in the Met exhibition. The central figure is a toqued trombonist, her form rendered as an electrified silhouette through the prodigious application of tiny color changes. A white sign beside her (labeled “30 centimes,” the same price of admission as the show in the Pelez) sets her off with additional power. (Seurat often threw a white shape into the middle of his pictures. It works for some reason. The Pelez does it too.)
Seurat’s exquisite Conté drawings, also on view, reveal the study that went into the crowd that lines the bottom of the canvas. Each figure is his own man or her own woman, despite the fuzziness of the details. Pointillism unifies the whole picture into a vibrating gas, allowing the artist to concentrate on the formal arrangement. For all its orthogonality, the small asymmetries around the canvas make the composition feel as dynamic as one could want.
“Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” is pertinent to the moment, in which exhortations to resist are circulating among the art world in light of the new presidential administration, which is generally not to its liking. The kind of anarchism in vogue in Paris in the late 1880s was the bomby sort. Fénéon and others in Seurat’s circle were tried for connections to it. Some of the work here is informed by that political spirit, even aside from the periodicals—observing the mixture of high and low classes, commenting on working conditions, and so forth. Yet the centerpiece is among the least socially conscious pictures in the show. That’s not to suggest that art related to timely topics doesn’t outlive the current events that inspire it, but that the artist ought to take what he needs from the moment and no more, even if it’s only the shapes. We should be glad that Seurat did so. He didn’t have time for anything else.