French Visual Culture Seminar: Alastair Wright & Georges Seurat’s Le Cirque

By Caroline Croasdaile

A rapt crowd. A charging steed. A lighter-than-air performer, balancing precariously. All are the work of the famed modern painter and pointillist Georges Seurat in his painting Le Cirque (1890-1891), currently found in the Musée D’Orsay. This Wednesday, in honor of the French Visual Culture Seminar (co-convened by the Art History Department and the Centre for French History and Culture) Professor Alastair Wright of St. John’s College, Oxford presented his ongoing research of Seurat’s Le Cirque. Alastair Wright is a seasoned academic and currently teaches both modern art and visual culture. He has published numerous scholarly articles as well as the book Matisse and the Subject of Modernism (2004) and he has also curated an exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s prints at the Princeton University Art Museum entitled Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints (2010).

 In his presentation Wright conveyed that he is primarily interested in examining how Seurat imagines, incorporates, and defines audience and spectatorship in his painting. Not only does he address the dynamics of the audience seated in the background of the painting’s circus, but he concerns himself with the external viewer peering into the scene of the painting as well. He demonstrates that the circus audience is a well-layered representation of class in the 19th century Paris of Seurat’s day, separated by the cost of seating. Their dress, which ranges from refined to rag-tag, serves to further underscore this marked separation. As Wright looks to the external reception of the painting, he addresses Seurat’s colleagues Paul Signac and Félix Fénéon who tried to harness the work (and artwork like it) to promote a proletarian and politically radical public. However, Wright agrees more with another contemporary, Stéphane Mallarmé, in his belief that the painting captures Seurat’s tricky and ambivalent relationship with the subject matter of audience in his work.

Le Cirque is a challenging painting to analyze and interpret and Wright does a fine job chipping away at its internal meanings. Are we meant to look down our noses at the petty amusements of the bourgeoisie? Feel for the performers as exploited and outcast? Or merely delight along with the audience in their excitement and awe of unbelievable feats? Seurat’s habitually cheerful palette, here, could be at odds with a much darker subject matter. During the lecture Wright draws a useful comparison between Le Cirque and a very similar piece by another of Seurat’s contemporaries, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. His work is far earthier, grittier, and Wright posits that this could very well have been a direct response to Seurat’s dreamy painting that seems to have all the substance of a lemon meringue.

While Wright offers some first-rate ideas and arguments on the nature of Le Cirque, he seems to be rather unaware of his own audience, reading mainly from a prepared paper that he brought with him. While excellently written, the lecture may have benefitted from more of the elements that make live public speaking unique. The new and old scholars in the room likely would have enjoyed hearing more about his process and inspiration for undertaking this interesting project. The lecture itself was followed by a spirited Q&A session that offered the St. Andrews audience a chance to engage with this visiting professor, and to query him on various elements of his presentation. The seminar was of course followed by wine and nibbles in the nearby Art History Department, and was a good opportunity for art historians and members of the French Department to mingle and chat. In all, the seminar was an excellent convergence of French culture and visual representation by a beloved artist from the heady days of the Parisian Belle Époque.