The Circus in 20th-Century American Art

By Gustafson, Donna | USA TODAY, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Circus in 20th-Century American Art


Gustafson, Donna, USA TODAY


The colorful life of the Big Top long has attracted artists.

DESCRIBED BY German literary critic Heinz Politzer as "a world between," the circus is a subject that for many artists has been filled with metaphoric possibility, formal experimentation, and exotic allure. Much more than popular entertainment, the circus is for many a dazzling alternative to everyday life--a spectacle of man's tragic failings, as seen in the buffoonish performances of the clowns, and a vision of his rich potential, symbolized by the daring and skill of the aerialists.

The first circus in America was established by John Bill Ricketts in 1792 in Philadelphia with a program that included acrobatic and aerialist performers, equestrian displays, and clowns. Ricketts toured his circus to other cities along the Eastern Seaboard and into Canada, setting a precedent for mobility that would be followed by nearly all subsequent American circuses. By the mid 19th century, the components that made up the modern circus--a traveling troupe of acrobats, clowns, riders, exotic animals, biological oddities, and wild animal acts--had been set.

As the nation expanded westward, so did the circus. By 1900, large and small circuses traveling by railroad, horse-drawn wagon, and barge were crisscrossing the length and breadth of the U.S., providing entertainment for a wide variety of patrons. The American circus evolved with society at large, expanding the European-derived single ring to the three-ring version; incorporating cars and bicycles in the acrobatic and clown acts; using trains and motorized vehicles to haul the circus from town to town; and, especially during the Golden Age of the Circus (1890-1930), employing contemporary composers such as Igor Stravinsky, designers like Norman Bel Geddes, and international circus stars to update and improve performances continually.

While the circus had been recognized in late-19th-century Europe as a subject of avant-garde art, in the U. …

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