A circus performance is taking place. A crowd laugh as two clowns perform an act in which one wheels the other around on a swivelling contraption. He uses his colleague’s arms as the handles while his companion clings on to a wheel, thus becoming a human wheel barrow. The standing clown exaggerates his actions to entertain the spectators and Yeats is careful to show this in the work. His large white painted face with its enormous blue eyes and bright red smile is turned to the crowd while his baggy trousers and large shoes move in a flamboyant manner as he pushes his human cart around the ring. The crowd are entranced by the act. At the top of the tier of seating a young woman in a pink hat laughs and claps her hands in delight. The other looks on engrossed. Although painted in a perfunctory manner one can distinguish school boys, middle aged men and women and older men amongst them.
The work is painted in a distinctive manner which was used by Yeats in several of his later paintings. The figures are created using impasto which indicates their poses and expressions accurately despite the apparent lack of detail. The canvas is barely covered in places with faint touches of red, green and blue to indicate the structure of the interior of the tent. The canvas of the painting symbolises the canvas of the tent and the bareness of the interior evokes the importance of imagination and make-believe in the circus acts, both on the part of the performers and on that of the spectator. The central pole of the tent marks the right hand edge of the composition while just to its left the opening of the tent is visible. In a manner akin to the circus performers, Yeats does not conceal the materials which have been used to create the painting and in this way sets up an important analogy between the practice of painting and that of the circus. Both require the suspension of reality.
Yeats saw clear parallels between theatrical performances and the practice of the visual artist. He had a particular interest in the circus because it entertained the greatest array of people with the simplest of sets and props and often in a boorish fashion as in this work. The artist, like the clown, was a peripheral figure. In the same year as he completed The Laugh, Yeats painted another great circus painting, Alone (1944, Private Collection). This also focuses on the clown, the lowliest and yet most popular of the circus acts. While an object of fun, his task, as acknowledged by several modernist artists, was only made possible through the concealment of his inner feelings and his ability to captivate the audience.
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