By focusing on well-edited ancillary material, the exhibition makes you see in genuinely new depth the greatness of Seurat’s “Sideshow” — which has been in the Met’s collection since 1960 — as well as the richness of the soil that nourished it, a bustling urban society on the cusp of change, including the increasingly fertile friction between high and low culture.
In this environment, Seurat, like every determined artist an opportunist, could take what he wanted and leave the rest, making something new that bordered on abstraction without completely forsaking the avant-garde’s opposition, naturalistic painting.
“Circus Sideshow” is one of six large paintings Seurat completed before his death in 1891, at 31, and the only one to take place outdoors at night. It depicts the street-side ritual known as a “parade” (pa-ROD), for which the English word sideshow is only an approximate translation. These were short performances with which centuries of troupes and circuses traveling around France had attracted paying customers. The parade was a free sample.
In “Sideshow,” we see five musicians, a young, preening buffoon or jester and their suave, watchful barker-ringmaster (a fair likeness of Ferdinand Corvi, the owner, himself). They occupy a raised, narrow stage outside their circus tent. These “saltimbanques,” as they were called, are drumming up business for the show inside. The heads and shoulders of curious passers-by just visible at the painting’s bottom edge attests to their success. With great subtlety, Seurat unmistakably indicates class differences as well as a range of intimacies, creating one of the painting’s most naturalistic moments.
“Circus Sideshow” has hung at the Met for more than 50 years, but it can still stop you in your tracks. Among the colorful, freely-painted works of Post-Impressionists like Gauguin and van Gogh, Seurat’s dark, mysterious canvas is a decidedly alien presence. Closer analogies of its still, orderly volumes include Egyptian reliefs and the statuary-like figures of Piero della Francesca’s Renaissance frescos. At odds with the painting’s noisy, often sordid subject this mood was attained. Seurat attained it by reducing the figures to elegant, repeating silhouettes and their backdrop to a series of echoing rectangles and ovals. Illumination from two rows of gaslights is carefully calibrated and distributed. And all are immersed in the granular, silencing atmosphere of Seurat’s painstaking, if not obsessive, Pointillist technique.
The success of the Met’s exhibition lies in the way everything in it winds back, enhancing the understanding of Seurat’s silent, magical painting. From an idea conceived by the British art historian and curator Richard Thomson, the show has been organized by Mr. Thomson and Susan Alyson Stein, the Met’s curator of 19th-century European painting, who has overseen an installation of remarkable clarity and telling juxtapositions and reunions.
The additional Seurats include the three surviving studies for “Sideshow” and a suite of five exquisite drawings of cafe singers, works that have hardly seen one another since 1888. The other Seurat painting in the show is the small version of “Models (Poseuses)” of 1887-88, in which Seurat does everything he doesn’t do in “Circus Sideshow” — paints daylight, flesh and a moment of relaxation. The larger version (hostage in the Barnes Collection) debuted with “Circus Sideshow” in the 1888 Salon des Indépendants and was much better received.
The most spectacular together-again moment comes with Fernand Pelez’s stupefyingly naturalistic “Grimaces and Misery — The Saltimbanques,” on public view in the official 1888 Salon while “Circus Sideshow” was displayed at the Indépendants. Measuring 20 feet across with 11 life-size figures, it is the anti-Seurat: Its art all but disappears into reportage. Its aura of overdone is redolent of Norman Rockwell or even Maxfield Parrish. Still, the disturbed faces of the three girls are poignantly convincing.
The best example of naturalism may be a small rediscovered gem, Octave Penguilly-L’Haridon’s 1846 “Sideshow (Parade): Pierrot Presents his Companions Harlequin and Polichinelle to the Crowd.” The sweet Pierrot winks as he gestures toward the exaggeratedly sinister pair. But the painted landscape backdrop tied to a thick birch and the light falling on the worn wood stage is one of the sweetest moments in the show.
The counterweight to Seurat in gravity is Daumier, whose fusion of humor, style and naturalism has few rivals. We see it in “The Strong Man,” an 1865 painting, which contrasts the jabber and gesticulations of an overactive barker and stolid obliviousness of the title character. Especially revealing of the harshness of the saltimbanque life are four Daumier lithographs. One shows a family setting up for business while nervously eyeing the competition and another, a completely dispirited family, moving house with meager belongings.
In her catalog essay, Ms. Stein examines the American context of “Circus Sideshow.” It arrived here in 1929, purchased by Knoedler Inc. As a photograph reveals, the painting was just in time to assume pride of place in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art, which presented Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne and the precursors of modernism.
The Modern’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., tried and failed twice to raise the money to meet the painting’s $100,000 price. Imagine his chagrin when shortly thereafter, Stephen C. Clark, chairman of the Modern’s board, negotiated the price down, ultimately buying it for himself for $47,000. In 1943 Clark would dismiss Barr from the director’s job and would eventually become less engaged with the museum. Which may be one reason Seurat’s “Circus Sideshow,” a masterpiece made to be contextualized, ended up at the Met.
An earlier version of this review misstated the number of life-size figures in a painting by Fernand Pelez: It is 11, not nine.
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this review misstated the position Susan Alyson Stein holds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is curator of European painting from the 19th-century, not the ninth.