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20 North Main St (also enter on 224 Benefit Street) Providence, RI 02903

Open today
10am–9pm

RISD
MUSEUM

Notes

Circus

  • RISDM 58-186

James Tissot, The Women of the Chariots, ca. 1883–1885. Gift of Mr. Walter Lowry.

Friday, August 1, 2014 – Sunday, February 22, 2015

Works on Paper Galleries

The spectacle of the American and European circus takes center stage this summer in Circus—a glimpse into the visual world of this phenomenon during the height of its popularity, 1850 to 1960. Approximately 40 circus-themed paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and posters by artists such as Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec delve into life under the big top and its wider connections to culture and society.

During its heyday, the circus was a site of extreme feats of human physicality and wondrous phenomena. The daring athleticism and grace of acrobats, trick riders, and trapeze artists were featured alongside the often strange and grotesque humor and antics of the clown troupe. Also on display were “human curiosities”—bearded ladies, conjoined twins, sword swallowers, and others—who found a kind of fame in sensationalized sideshows.

Although the circus created an illusory world unto itself, it was also deeply tied to the 19th- and 20th-century industrialization of the United States and Europe. Enabled by rapid technological advancements, such as an expanding railroad system, the circus to came to both large cities and small towns. At the same time, highlights such as menageries and ethnographic exhibitions broadened visitors’ exposure to cultures from around the world, thus shaping viewers’ knowledge while simultaneously reinforcing Western hegemony over colonized lands.


Circus is made possible by the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


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