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

January 25 - May 22, 2011
East Gallery

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 painters Walt Kuhn, George Bellows, George Luks, John Steuart Curry, and Reginald Marsh, to modern and contemporary artists including Mary Ellen Mark and Rhona Bitner, among others, Under the Big Top examines the iconography of circus imagery in American 20th and 21st -century art. It explores the artists' psychological connection to the various types of circus performers, tracing the origins of select characters to their original sources. As a special component of this exhibition, we will be featuring a large installation by contemporary artist, Sharon Bates, in the Marble Court.

This exhibition was organized by the Fleming Museum, with generous support from the Kalkin Family Exhibitions Endowment Fund and the Walter Cerf Exhibitions Fund.


IMAGE (above right): Paul Cadmus (American 1904-1999), Gilding the Acrobat. Pen and ink drawing with white chalk on paper, (plate) 12" x 6". Bequest of Henry Schnakenberg 1971.2.69