Another wonder of the circus

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / August 2, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Nothing can really compare to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s “El Jaleo’’ or the Museum of Fine Arts’ “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,’’ but when I’m asked to name my favorite picture by John Singer Sargent, I often nominate this one.

It’s a great picture - but, I freely admit, it’s also personal. My wife, a violinist, ran off to Paris to join the circus, and it so happened she chose the Cirque d’Hiver. She was kind enough to bring me with her, and so I spent a lot of time in the steeply sweeping, circular interior depicted here by Sargent.

One usually associates circuses with tents. But this building, an octagonal structure designed by Jacques Ignace Hittorf with a frieze of Amazons wrapped around its façade, is very solid. It was erected in the Paris of Napoleon III, a ruler with an unswerving faith in the political benefits of investing in public entertainments. It worked - until the Prussians arrived with their canons.

At first it was called, in his honor, the Cirque Napoleon. But 10 years after it opened, it became a venue for popular concerts performed by the orchestra of Jules Etienne Pasdeloup, who over the next 20 years promoted a distinctively French taste in classical music.

It is Pasdeloup’s orchestra that Sargent depicts here in a monochromatic sketch (the Art Institute of Chicago has a more colorful version) remarkable for its immediacy.

Looking at it, you instantly feel you are there, watching on from an oblique angle as the musicians get on with their jobs. There’s a slight feeling of anarchy in the air: sheet music haphazardly arranged on stands, scattered bystanders who may or may not be part of the action.

This, you feel, is how creative work gets done; there will be time for more formal presentations later on.

Was Sargent’s own, breezy style an acknowledgment of this - a frank admission that first stabs are more interesting than finishing touches?

The Cirque d’Hiver continued to inspire artists after Sargent. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a regular visitor, and based many pictures on what he saw there. Richard Avedon took his most famous fashion photograph, “Dovima With Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior’’ at the Cirque d’Hiver.

The 1956 film “Trapeze,’’ starring Gina Lollobrigida, was set there, and Fellini filmed parts of “I Clowns’’ there. The great circus-lover recorded interviews with members of the Bouglione family who took over the circus in 1934, and were still running things when my wife took her job there seven decades later.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


By John Singer Sargent

At: Museum of Fine Arts. 617-267-9300.