Seurat at the Met

By Franklin Hill Perrell

One show in NY not to be missed this season is Seurat. This artist, who died aged thirty one, created only six or seven truly major oils. Each marked a stage of his thinking or explored a different pictorial concept. Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte marked the full fledged introduction of his pointillist style and grappled with a complex composition of urban figures in full sunlight.

The Circus Sideshow, featured as the singular focus at the Met, is Georges Seurat’s most enigmatic painting, a mysterious array of utterly still figures whose immobility is at odds with expectations of raucous disorder exemplified by the circus theme. It is Seurat’s only night painting, and the artist introduces a palette of greens and violets, according to the catalogue essay, the last colors that the human eye recognizes as day lapses into darkness. The exhibition documents the circus themes through works by other artists of the period, and never before has a story like this been so thoroughly and intelligibly portrayed.

This is indeed a highly focused show with much new information. It is documented that Seurat portrayed an actual circus: the cirque Corvi, and the ringmaster impresario, Corvi himself, is depicted, along with a jester like character (the boy with the cowlick hairdo) derived from real life, as is the setting with musicians to the left (period instruments are part of the exhibition) and spectators lining up for tickets. The Parade, or side-show, was a teaser, designed to entice its audience to step up and purchase tickets to the main event.

It’s an amazing painting, and for the New York audience of today, a wonderful way to become immersed in a fascinating period one hundred and thirty years ago in Paris.

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