Under the Big Top: The Fine Art of the Circus in America at the Fleming Museum

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BURLINGTON, VT.- The circus was recognized in late-19th-century Europe as a subject of avant-garde art, but in America, it was not until artist Robert Henri’s appeal, in 1923, to paint contemporary life that artists began to search out and paint scenes of this popular entertainment. For artists, as well as for many individuals, the circus offered much more than an enjoyable leisure activity. It provided a spectacle of man’s tragic failings as seen in the foolish performances of the clowns; a vision of man’s rich potential symbolized by the daring and skill of the aerialists and acrobats; and it offered artists a lens through which to see themselves. Like Georges Rouault, whose prints are exhibited in the adjacent gallery (Georges Rouault: Cirque de L’Étoile Filante), many American artists identified personally with circus performers, because they too, lived by their skill and talent at the fringes of society. Through examples by artists ranging from early 20th-century American