Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques

This epic work by Fernandez Pelez (click on link for a better view on a public domain image) was part of Seurat’s Circus Sideshow exhibition. It made me terribly sad.

Too large to be ignored at the Salon of 1888, Pelez’s commanding parade scene went on view just before the close of the exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants that featured Seurat’s representation of the same subject. True to form for an artist who made no secret of his sympathies for the downtrodden in trenchant, life-size depictions, Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques presents a lineup of circus performers whose lot does not improve with age: unsmiling young acrobats, sniveling in the corner or waiflike in sagging tights, give way to miserable, world-weary musicians across a twenty-foot stage.

On the face of it – from the quizzical dwarf to the white-faced clown – this epic naturalist painting would seem to to have nothing in common with Seurat’s stylized conception. And yet in each brooding masterpiece, the players take their place on a shallow stage, aligned in friezelike formation in tripartite arrangement.

Grimaces and Misery drew mixed reviews in 1888. Faulted for its dry and uninspired reportage, it also aroused deep sentiments, triggering heartfelt concern and rapt appreciation for its penetrating characterization of human suffering. The following year it was awarded a silver medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889.

Fernandez Pelez
Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques, 1888
Oil on canvas, in five sections
87 3/8 in. × 20 ft. 6 7/8 in. (222 × 627 cm)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 19th, 2017

5 thoughts on “Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques

  1. The drummer boy looks undernourished and asleep on his feet. The character with the bell at his feet (the circus master?) looks self-satisfied and mean. I don’t wonder that this made you feel sad. Not a scene I’d like to keep company with for very long.

    Liked by 1 person


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