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Musicians, Strongmen, and Clowns

Expert book selections inspired by the exhibition “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow”

Centered on Georges Seurat’s 1887–88 painting, Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), our newest exhibition explores the motif of traveling fairs and circuses in 19th-century France. Positioned within the context of works by other artists from the period, from Daumier to Picasso, visitors will have the chance to view Sideshow alongside more than one hundred drawings, prints, posters, musical instruments, and other ephemera from the period.

While the concept of a circus is familiar to many, Seurat’s understanding of a sideshow and the modern concept aren’t quite one in the same. In today’s terms, a sideshow can suggest something akin to a freak show designed to shock or surprise, while in Seurat’s day a sideshow served as a free “appetizer” designed to entice viewers to pay to see a more elaborate act.

In the interest of learning more, we sat down with our Book Buyer, Lauren Gallagher, to get her expert perspective on some of the best books to read, whether you’re looking to prepare for your visit to the exhibition or are inspired to learn more. Read our interview below, and click here to shop our Seurat’s Circus Sideshow exhibition store.

Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891). Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), 1887-88. Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 59 in. (99.7 x 149.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960 (61.101.17)


Can you speak a little bit about the challenges of selecting books to complement this exhibition?

“Smaller exhibitions with a narrower focus pose their own unique challenges. On the one hand, it can be fun working within such restrictions, and one avoids the occasional sense of being overwhelmed by a large exhibition with multiple themes. Regardless of the size of an exhibition, the goal is always to enhance the visitor’s experience, rather than detract or distract. While this is not a one-painting exhibition (at last count there are over 100 objects), the show’s conceptual structure takes its cue from a single work of art by Seurat. In this case my book selections take inspiration from both the artist and the themes of circus and sideshow entertainment. On a more pedestrian note, as popular as Seurat is, there are very few engaging, high-quality monographs of the artist currently in print.” 

To me, the exhibition Seurat’s Circus Sideshow is just as much about Seurat’s artwork and artistic process as it is about circus sideshows themselves. Can you speak about how you’re responding to those two themes separately and together via the assortment to better educate our shoppers?

“This show is opening at a particularly poignant time in circus history. In January, Ringling Brothers announced that it would fold up its tent after 146 years of entertainment, and more locally, New York’s Big Apple Circus announced its closure last year. While circus arts have continued to thrive in Europe, in the 21st century theirs have evolved into a more avant-garde, often surrealist interpretation of acrobatics and illusion, while America’s “big-top” entertainment genre is an increasingly rarified art. Although Seurat’s artwork shows us the traveling sideshow, a free entertainment spectacle which was popular in France and held outside a larger fair, America’s “big-top” circus is perhaps a closer comparison to this type of entertainment.

Musicians, strongmen, clowns, tightrope walkers, animal acts, etc., are depicted across the artworks in this show. The exhibition features a wide array of posters, lithographs, prints, and paintings that contextualize the prominence of circus culture in France before and during Seurat’s time. I chose a few circus-themed titles for adults and children to cater to those who are drawn to (or perhaps pleasantly surprised by) the show’s vivid sideshow-related contextual art, and a few more directly art-related titles.  The Met catalogue for the exhibition is, of course, the go-to publication for those who want to take home the closest experience of seeing the exhibition itself, including beautiful images and enlightening scholarship.”

seurat's circus

By Richard Thomson, with contributions by Susan Alyson Stein, Charlotte Hale, and Silvia A. Centeno


Lauren’s Picks:

Ways of Pointillism: Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh


Edited by Klaus Albrecht Schröder

This luxurious tome is the exhibition catalogue for a recent exhibition at Vienna’s exemplary Albertina Museum. The volume traces Pointillism from Seurat through the mid-20th century, including the style’s influence on the Fauvists and artists such as Van Gogh, Paul Klee, Picasso, Mondrian, and more. The text is accessible and the design includes many gorgeous full-bleed spreads of paintings, many of which are rarely seen by North American eyes. Most books on this genre of painting are out of print and are not this comprehensive. This book is a welcome addition to the subject.”

The Circus:1870s to 1950s

taschen circus

Edited by Noel Daniel

“At 544 pages, almost 12 pounds, 15 inches tall, and 10 inches wide—and in a slipcase—this stunning book is a serious coffee-table contender and a true joy to page through. With contributions from noted circus historians, this book is as beautiful as it is informative. Including illustrations and art spanning two centuries, and photographs by the likes of Lisette Model, Weegee, and even Stanley Kubrick, this book encompasses an array of circus history and its place in the popular imagination. Chockfull of posters, lithographs, paintings, illustrations, and photographs, the book is a dizzying feast for the eyes and a must-have for anyone fascinated by the circus and the aesthetic surrounding it.” 

Sunday with Seurat

sunday with seurat

By Julie Merberg and Suzanne Bober

This sweet board book is a charming introduction for babies and toddlers to Seurat’s art, including such famous images as A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and Bathers at Asnieres.”

ABC Is for Circus


By Patrick Hruby. Available in-store only.

“This vibrantly colored board book has highly geometric illustrations but still captures the circus aesthetic, using a broad font and a bold, jewel-tone color palette.”

Getting to Know Seurat

 getting to know an artist.Seurat

This is among the many popular introductions in the series “Getting to Know an Artist.” I myself read many of these as a child and even as I grew into my preteen years would frequently reference them for facts about my favorite artists after visiting a museum or when writing a report in art class. They are informative introductions for children without being too dry.”

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