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

Open today 10 am–5 pm

a resource about art and its making


  • RISDM 1987-058
  • RISDM 58-186
  • RISDM 53-117-3
  • RISDM 84-198-1178
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Henri Matisse, The Nightmare of the White Elephant (Le Cauchemar de l’éléphant blanc), 1947. © Henri Matisse. Mary B. Jackson Fund.

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

Works on Paper Galleries
Design the Night celebration: August 21, 5-9 pm, FREE!

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 and the Harlan & Amy Korenvaes Family Foundation.

Press Information

“Entertaining romp through 150 years of circus-related art, from Impressionists and post-Impressionists of the 19th century through 20th-century masters such as Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Calder. … The result may be the most fun you can have without actually running away and joining a circus troupe.” — Providence Journal

“Small, but rich, two-room exhibition of century-old advertising posters and fine art paintings and prints of the spectacle.”
Providence Phoenix

“There are reasons both historical and artistic for Circus, a new exhibit at the RISD Museum, to be part of your summer art itinerary.”
Providence Journal

Circus comes to Providence in RISD Museum show”
Providence Journal