Chagall found an endless amount of pleasure in depicting the visual splendor of the circus. Throughout his career he drew great creative energy from watching the event, and some of his most important canvases are fantastic depictions that exaggerate the pageantry of the performance. “It’s a magic world, the circus,” Chagall once wrote, “an age-old game that is danced, and in which tears and smiles, the play of arms and legs take the form of great art….The circus is the performance that seems to me the most tragic. Throughout the centuries, it has been man’s most piercing cry in his search for entertainment and joy. It often takes the form of lofty poetry. I seem to see a Don Quixote in search of an ideal, like that marvelous clown who wept and dreamed of human love.”
Although this picture is mostly populated by circus performers, these characters had many levels of significance for the artist. To him, they represented the many faces of man’s emotional character, both fun-loving and tragic. He once wrote, “I have always considered the clowns, acrobats, and actors as being tragically human who, for me, would resemble characters from certain religious paintings. And even today, when I paint a Crucifixion or another religious painting, I experience again almost the same sensations that I felt while painting circus people, and yet there is nothing literary in these paintings, and it is very difficult to explain why I find a psycho-plastic resemblance between the two kinds of composition.” Indeed it is not just the acrobats, trapeze artists, horsewoman and clowns that find their home in this canvas. At upper left the artist sits in front of his canvas, palette in his left hand and his right hand held to his forehead, a canvas in front of him. Audience members form the swath of background, some carrying bouquets of flowers, others holding babies or whispering to each other at the spectacle in front of them. Fish and ladders float near the edges, a full complement of musicians adorn the center of the circus ring and anthropomorphized animals populate the canvas. Chagall's entire universe is found here is a dazzling array of action and color.
Chagall’s fascination with the circus dates back to his childhood in Vitebsk and his years in Paris when he frequently attended the circus with Ambroise Vollard. As Venturi explains, “The importance of the circus motif in modern French literature and painting is well known; in painting it suffices to recall the names of Seurat and Rouault. As always, Chagall’s images of circus people … are at once burlesque and tender. Their perspective of sentiment, their fantastic forms, suggest that the painter is amusing himself in a freer mood than usual; and the result is eloquent of the unmistakable purity flowing from Chagall’s heart. These circus scenes are mature realizations of earlier dreams” (L. Venturi, Marc Chagall, New York, 1945, p. 39).
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