The Circus Lover, one of fifteen oil paintings in James Tissot’s series of contemporary life called “La femme à Paris” (“Women of Paris”), was first exhibited in Paris in 1885 as Les femmes de sport and was displayed in London in 1886 as The Amateur Circus.
The setting for The Circus Lover is the Molier Circus in Paris, a “high-life circus” opened in 1880 in which the amateur performers were members of the aristocracy. The London exhibition catalogue denigrated the events as “fancies of a bored generation.” The man on the trapeze wearing red is the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, one of the oldest titles of the French nobility. People of beauty and fashion attended the circus and mingled with the performers during the interval.
The Circus Lover was sold by Gerald M. Fitzgerald at Christie’s, London in mid-1957 to the Marlborough Fine Art Gallery for $ 3,219 USD/£ 1,150 GBP. In early 1958, The Circus Lover was purchased from the Marlborough Fine Art by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts for $ 5,000 as Amateur Circus.
The Circus Lover was included in the blockbuster exhibition, “Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity,” in Paris, New York and Chicago, and I saw it then. But I recently had a chance to study it at length in Boston, and I have to say, it is an odd picture. It’s garish and crammed with characters and mini-dramas, but it is amusing and definitely compelling. Here are some close-ups I took for those of you who can’t get to the Museum of Fine Arts to see Tissot’s beautifully painted details.
The face makeup and expression on the clown with the Union Jack costume are denoted with thick smudges of paint, while the woman’s bracelet, the dainty edging of her glove, and the fabric of her gown are rendered in finer strokes.
The blonde in the pink gown pulls us into the scene with her direct gaze. Her gown, with its lacy neckline and green accents, is skillfully observed. Behind her, fashionable men in silk top hats are depicted as individuals with distinctive features, and they are alive and busily interacting with each other.
The women sitting in the tier above them are also depicted as individuals, each with very different features, expressions, and ensembles. This photo also shows two of my favorite details – the lively profiles of the woman and the man at the right.
Notice the contrasting textures of the man’s gleaming silk top hat, his soft sideburns, and the wrinkled fabric of his coat. And, above him, a woman whose face is obscured wears an elegant straw hat trimmed in black ribbons and profuse bows. The green patterned fabric of her gown distinguishes her figure from the man, the woman in front of her in the brown patterned dress, and the woman in pink.
The acrobat in blue sits on the trapeze on his thighs rather than his bottom – look how the bar of the swing presses into his flesh. His crossed legs form an inverted triangle, which frames the face of the lady in the red hat. And, on the left, look at the comical expressions on the guards at the entrance to the ring.
The old gent with the white whiskers seems to disapprove of what he sees, but the younger men on the right are clearly amused by something, as are at least two of the ladies seated below them. The two brown gowns are the closest thing to duplicate styles in the whole painting – notice how very different each of the women’s hats are.
The acrobat in red – the Duc de la Rochefoucauld – is sitting directly on his buttocks, which hang rather amusingly over the heads of two bored gentlemen seen behind him.
The Duc de la Rochefoucauld was said to have “the biceps of Hercules,” and his red and white shoes are striking. But in the whole scene, the only person who appears to be looking at him is the lady with the large red fan.
These men in the uppermost tier appear to be checking out the fashionable beauties seated immediately below them, while the man with the opera glasses seems to be focused on the woman in the ivory-colored bonnet seen just behind the Duc de la Rochefoucauld’s right foot.
I love the expressions on the faces of these two friends. They are not impressed. Head to head with impassivity, they are either exchanging acerbic comments on the whole affair, or on the women near them – or they just want to get out of there!
You can feel the heat and the sense of the crowd pressing on you, in all its boredom and restlessness, as audience members anticipate mingling during – or after – the interval.
Though Tissot’s “Women of Paris” series did not meet with critical or popular acclaim, The Circus Lover is yet another of his paintings that opened a window into his world and let posterity in.
© 2016 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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