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“The Circus” by Georges Seurat

"The Circus" by Georges Seurat

“The Circus” by Georges Seurat

“The Circus” by Georges Seurat depicts a female circus performer standing on a white horse plus various other acts at a Paris circus of the late 1890s. At that time, circuses and entertainment spectacles had become a favoured subject for artists portraying modern life. Seurat’s painting is divided into two parts, with the circus artists occupying the lower right, characterised by curves and spirals creating a sense of movement, and the audience filling the upper left, confined to rows of benches.

The audience shows the distinctions between social classes sitting in rows. In the front rows sit the well-dressed wealth classes and in the gallery at the back stand the poorer classes. The white-faced clown creates a sense of space in the foreground and the tiers of bleachers. A pair of clowns are also tumbling behind the ringmaster.

The circus was a popular entertainment in Paris and was depicted in the 1880s by other artists such as Renoir, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Seurat used a Neo-Impressionist Divisionist style, with pointillist dots creating a sense of different colours. The work is dominated by white and the three primary colours, mainly red and yellow with blue shading.

A deeper blue border painted around the edge of the canvas, merging into a flat frame in the same shade of blue. Seurat was making use of recent theories on the emotional and symbolic meaning of lines and colours, and the theoretical works on complementary colours. Japanese prints and the latest trends in graphic works and posters also influenced him.

“The Circus” was Georges Seurat’s last painting, made in a Neo-Impressionist style, it remained unfinished at his death in 1891. Although unfinished, this painting captures the emotion and movement of a circus scene. The clown at the front stands out with white make-up against scarlet hair and dress. The smartly dressed ringmaster to the right is placed just in front of clowns and an acrobat who is jumping in front of him. The focal point of the piece, however, is the young woman in yellow who is boldly riding the white horse. The frame of this painting was also created by Georges Seurat to complement the picture.

Despite being unfinished, the work was exhibited in the 7th Salon des Independents, but it, unfortunately, drew a great deal of controversy due to its similarity to posters by French painter Jules Chéret. Seurat died of what is speculated to have been diphtheria a few days after the Salon opened. Seurat died trying to create a symbiosis between artistic creation and scientific analysis, a subject of widespread interest during his time.

Georges Seurat

Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859 – 1891) was a French post-Impressionist artist. He is best known for devising the painting techniques known as chromoluminarism and pointillism. While less famous than his paintings, his conté crayon drawings have also garnered a great deal of critical appreciation.

Seurat’s artistic personality combined a delicate sensibility and a passion for logical abstraction and mathematical precision. His pioneering techniques relied on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the colour spots into a fuller range of tones. It is a technique with few serious practitioners today and is notably seen in the works of Seurat, Signac and Cross. Also in Andy Warhol’s early works, and Pop Art.

Seurat died in 1891 at the age of 31. The cause of his death is uncertain and his last ambitious work, The Circus, was left unfinished at the time of his death.

“The Circus” by Georges Seurat

  • Title:            “The Circus” by Georges Seurat
  • Français:       Le Cirque
  • Artist:           Georges-Pierre Seurat
  • Year:            1891
  • Medium:      Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: Height: 185 cm (72.8 ″); Width: 152 cm (59.8 ″)
  • Museum:      Musée d’Orsay

Georges Seurat

A Tour of the Musée d’Orsay


“Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science.”
– Georges Seurat


Photo Credit: 1) Georges Seurat [Public domain]