5 Details of George Seurat’s Last Painting, “Cirque”

Seurat's Cirque, 1891I was going through some old pictures when I found this detail of George Seurat’s “Cirque,” which was painted in Paris around the time of his death in 1891. I had seen the work during my first visit to Paris, where looking at the works of some of my most favorite artists was both inspiring and eye opening.

Seurat’s artwork and detailed pointillism is particularly fascinating because of the way in which the artist creates lines with dots and color changes, without actually creating large strokes across any page.

What I found absolutely incredible about seeing this painting is that the level of detail in creating images from dots is absolutely remarkable in how it pays attention to the nuances of different figures moving through space in the midst of a celebration.

From the website of Musee D’Orsay, we can find further elucidations on the scope of Seurat’s intentions with painting this particular piece. There are five lessons to take away

1. Seurat often went to lectures at the Sorbonne to hear Charles Henry, a mathematician, speak about the psychology of light and color. He was instrumental in depicting cities and forms of entertainment like the circus.

Coming after Parade and Cancan, Circus was the third panel in a series by Seurat on the popular attractions of the modern city and its late-night entertainment. The circus theme was often covered in the 1880s, especially by Renoir, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. But Circus is seen as one of the most impressive applications of Divisionist theory. In it, Seurat interprets Charles Henry’s theories on the psychological effects of line and colour as well those on optical mixing of colours formulated by Chevreul and Rood.


2. Critics had some spectacular analogies in mind when describing the painting, and took note of Seurat’s dominantly orange palate.

When the painting was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1891, one critic observed that “everything in Circus achieves harmony through analogy, through the conciliation of opposites, conspiring towards a sense of gaiety: ascending lines, successive tone contrasts, pronounced dominance of orange, highlighted by a frame which creates an opposition of tone and colour with the whole…”

3. Sticking to the basic colors of red, yellow, and blue, Seurat focuses on light- a white canvas, to add depth to the paintings.

The colour scheme also obeys precise rules: the primordial colour, that of pure light, white, dominates the canvas. The palette then harmonises the three primary colours: red, yellow and blue, modulated in small methodical brushstrokes echoing the rhythm of the lines.

Finally Seurat isolates his painting both with a dark border painted directly on to the canvas and a flat frame in the same shade of blue, making it an integral part of the work.

4. Playing with the tension of the seating area and the arena, Seurat pays homage to very precisely followed rules of geometry.

Two spaces are juxtaposed: the space for the stage and the artistes, all curves, stylised arabesques and spirals, filled with dynamic tension, or imbalance even; and the space for the seating and the public, rigid, orthogonal, motionless, strictly geometrical.

5. Seurat’s approach to art is holistic in this last testimony to the artist’s great interests.

With this unfinished painting – the painter died of diphtheria a few days after the Salon opened – Seurat was seeking to create a symbiosis between artistic creation and scientific analysis, a subject of great popular interest in the 19th century.


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