These two drawings for Cirque [Circus]by Seurat, a gift from Charlotte Hellman, head of the Signac Archivesand co-curator of "Signac collector " (October 12, 2021-February 13, 2022), were displayed in the exhibition alongside the painting. They testify to the friendship that united the two artists that began in 1884. Signac collected his friend's works and in particular his drawings. Of the 80 works by Seurat in the Signac collection, more than two-thirds were drawings.
He acquired L’Écuyère [The Horsewoman]in 1900 and The Clownbefore 1912. Cirque [Circus], the painting, had belonged to him since 1900, but for financial reasons, he was forced to part with it without ensuring that the painting would eventually enter the national collections. He sold it to the American John Quinn in 1923, on the sole condition that the latter bequeath it to the Louvre; the painting is now on the walls of the Musée d’Orsay. Cirque [Circus]is the only major painting by Seurat held in France. It is among the few large-scale compositions the artist made in his brief lifetime, along with La Baignade à Asnières [Bathers at Asnières](London, National Gallery), Un dimanche après-midi à la grande Jatte [A Sunday on La Grande Jatte](Art Institute of Chicago), Les Poseuses [Models](Philadelphia, Barnes Foundation), Parade(New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Chahut [The Can-can](Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum).
The clown in the foreground takes the place the musician had from behind in Chahut. With the theme of the circus, Seurat stands in the tradition with Jules Chéret, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas. The painting was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1891. Six days later, Seurat died, at the age of 31. Cirque [Circus] then became his artistic testament and an icon of neo-impressionism.
The two studies for the painting join two other studies, a watercolorand a painted sketch, in the Orsay collections, forming an exceptional body of work for understanding the painting, few preparatory studies for which are known. Françoise Cachin saw the clown as a metaphor for the artist, while Anne Distel described the clown's two hands, one stylized, the other realistic, as the image of Seurat's aesthetic. It is also tempting to see in L’Écuyère [The Horsewoman], treated in a subtle balance of lines and values, an image of the artist, and his art based on the harmonious analogy of opposites.
Seurat is one of the great draftsmen of the nineteenth century. He produced more than 500 drawings, including his famous “noirs” in the 1880s. Trained at the Beaux-arts de Paris, in the studio of Henri Lehmann, a student of Ingres, he adopted an approach contrary to the line-based drawing he had learned, by drawing images from popular places of life, such as the circus, in chiaroscuro. His drawings form a “universe that is at once solid and trembling, and whose frequency seems to be governed by an invisible pitch,” to use Louis-Antoine Prat’s beautiful phrasing. For Paul Signac, his friend's drawings were among “the most beautiful drawings by painters that exist.”