The circus—creepy to some, enthralling to others—is a classic tradition, and its sideshows, the 19th century teaser performances staged outside to attract passersby, were often the place to see the strangest of performances. Now open at The Met is Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, whose name is taken from Georges Seurat’s painting on the subject: a ringmaster, musicians and an acrobat amuse customers waiting in line to enter the carnival.
The father of pointillism and many of his contemporaries were intrigued by the parade, loosely translated in French as the “come-on,” and the circus, the period’s foremost form of commercial entertainment. Seurat’s first turn at a nocturnal scene has an austere, haunting effect, conceivably a critique on the blustering emptiness of popular culture; he called his depictions of modern life “canvases of combat.” Fittingly, Seurat’s last painting, “The Circus,” was of a show under the big top.
More than 100 paintings, drawings, posters, prints and lithographs from other artists, as well as 17 additional Seurat works, supplement the show’s main attraction. Caricaturist Honoré Daumier’s satirical lithographs portray the challenges faced by circus performers dependent on the capricious inclinations of the public; Fernand Pelez’s “Grimaces and Misery” delineates the carnival’s daily tedium with a 20-foot-wide stage crowded with bored clowns, musicians and acrobats; and in Picasso’s “Fairground Stall,” people throng before, while others rush past, the sideshow. Through May 29, 1000 Fifth Ave.